WASHINGTON — Federal agents trying to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border say they are hampered by laws that keep them from driving vehicles on huge swaths of land because it falls under U.S. environmental protection, allowing illegal immigrants and smugglers to walk through the territory undisturbed.
A growing number of lawmakers say such restrictions have turned wilderness areas into highways for criminals. In recent weeks, three congressional panels, including two in the GOP-controlled House and one in the Democratic-controlled Senate, have moved to give the Border Patrol unfettered access to all federally managed lands within 100 miles of the border with Mexico.
Two of the panels expanded the legislation’s reach to include the border with Canada.
The votes signal a brewing battle in Congress that will determine whether border agents can disregard environmental protections while they do their job.
Dozens of environmental laws were waived for the building of the border fence, and activists say this is just another conservative attempt to find an excuse to do away with environmental protections.
But agents who have worked along the border say the laws crimp their power to secure the border. Zack Taylor, a retired Border Patrol agent who lives about nine miles from the Arizona-Mexico border, said smugglers soon learn the areas that agents are least likely to frequent.
“The (smuggling) route stays on public lands from the border to Maricopa County,” Taylor said, referring to the state’s most populous county. “The smugglers have free rein. It has become a lawless area.”
Environmental groups said lawmakers lining up to support the legislation have routinely opposed the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and dozens of other laws, and they accused the lawmakers of using illegal immigration as the latest excuse to gut protections.
“For every problem that’s out there in society, there’s some extremists in Congress who say the solution is, ‘Well, let’s roll back the environmental laws, let’s open up the public lands,’ ” said Paul Spitler, spokesman for the Wilderness Society. “It doesn’t comport to reality, but it fits their mindset that it’s simply the environmental regulations that are holding back America.”
Nearly 40 percent of the land on the U.S.-Mexico border and about a quarter of the land on the U.S.-Canadian border is public land, including Big Bend National Park in Texas and Glacier National Park in Montana. Driving is prohibited on those parts of the land that are designated wilderness areas.
Nathan Cote of Las Cruces, a former state representative who opposes the legislation, said the Border Patrol already has the authority to drive vehicles off-road, even in wilderness areas, when they are pursuing illegal border crossers.
New Mexico’s two Democratic Congressmen, Ben Ray Lujan and Martin Heinrich, voted against the legislation in the House Committee on Natural Resources on Oct. 5.
“This bill is a major overreach by the most extreme Republicans in Congress to create a lawless strip of land on our nation’s border,” Heinrich said in a written statement. “Land that we all own and use would be handed over to the Department of Homeland Security to do as they please — including restricting access for grazing and hunting, and eliminating environmental protections that keep our families healthy.”
New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican who represents the district along the Mexican border, has been critical of previous efforts by Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman to establish wilderness areas near the border in southern New Mexico.
“The situation at our southern border is perilous,” Pearce said Thursday. “Constituents in southern New Mexico live in constant fear of drug smugglers and gangsters crossing onto their land and putting their lives in jeopardy. We must ensure the safety of our borders, and H.R. 1505 makes that possible.”
Bingaman’s office said he did not support the proposed legislation. Udall could not be reached late Thursday.
Bingaman and Udall’s proposal to expand wilderness areas along the border would establish a non-wilderness buffer of nearly three miles and a two-mile restricted-use area that would allow border agents to conduct patrols and surveillance operations.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, reported that supervisors at 17 of 26 Border Patrol stations along the Mexican border said access to federal lands had been limited because of environmental restrictions. Yet, the vast majority of the agents in charge also said that they were generally able to adjust their patrols without sacrificing effectiveness.
Wildlife officials say vehicle use can be particularly hazardous in the desert. Water gathers in the tire tracks instead of in natural pools and evaporates more quickly, leading to less vegetation and less available food. Some areas, such as Big Bend and the desert farther west, are deadly to traverse in certain months and immigrants and smugglers avoid them.
Journal staff writer Rene Romo and Associated Press writer Jacques Billeaud contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal