Environmental Laws Harm Border Patrol’s Ability to Secure Border, Says Federal Auditor

By Edwin Mora | April 19, 2011 | 3:55 AM EDT

A Border Patrol agent watches people watches the Mexico-U.S. border in Imperial Valley, California. (Photo: U.S. Border Patrol/Gerald L. Nino)

(CNSNews.com) Federal land managers in Arizona, where about half of all illegal alien apprehensions took place in 2010, denied a U.S. Border Patrol station permission to build a road deemed necessary for “achieving or maintaining operational control” of an area along the southwest border.

According to an April 15 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), land managers, including officials from the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture, denied permission to build the road because of environmental restrictions related to the Wilderness Act.

The GAO, which surveyed 26 stations along the southwest border, also found that Border Patrol headquarters had denied two of them funding for infrastructure along the southwest border which was required to “achieve or maintain operational control.”

Federal lands comprise about 820 miles, or more than 40 percent, of the approximately 2,000-mile southwest border. As of Sept. 30, 2010, the U.S. government had established operational or “effective” control along less than half (873 miles) of that border.

The GAO says illegal cross-border activity on federal lands “has increased substantially” since the 1990s.

Seventeen of the 26 stations reported having “experienced delays and restrictions in patrolling and monitoring portions of federal lands because of various land management laws,” including the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and National Historic Preservation Act.

However, only four of the 26 stations reported that access delays and restrictions had affected their ability to achieve or maintain “operational control” along the border.

Instead, the GAO said, factors such as “remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain or dense vegetation, have had the greatest effect on their abilities to achieve or maintain operational control.”

The GAO defines maintaining “operational control” as “the capability to consistently detect entries when they occur; identify what the entry is and classify its level of threat (such as who is entering, what the entrants are doing, and how many entrants there are); effectively and efficiently respond to the entry; and bring the situation to an appropriate law enforcement resolution, such as an arrest.”

At one Border Patrol station in Arizona, the agent-in-charge reported that his ability to achieve operational control had been “affected by a shortage of east-west roads in the unit,” the report said. “He told us that some of his area could potentially reach operational control status if there was an additional east-west road.”

However, the station’s request for such a road was denied by the land manager, “because the area is designated as wilderness.”

“As a result of this denial, the patrol agent-in-charge did not pursue a request for resources through the Border Patrol’s operational assessment,” the report added.

Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Alan Bersin reported late last year that about half of all apprehensions in 2010 took place in Arizona’s Tucson sector.

Another one of the four stations highlighted in the GAO report had also not asked Border Patrol for help in attaining access to federal borderlands.

In the remaining two cases, Border Patrol officials denied funding for roads needed to “achieve or maintain operational control” along federal borderlands “because of higher priority needs of the agency.”

“Border Patrol sector or headquarters officials had denied the stations’ requests for resources to facilitate increased or timelier access – typically for budgetary reasons,” the report said.

Border Patrol agents monitor the U.S. border with Mexico in Nogales, Ariz., on Thursday, April 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Four-month delay

GAO noted that land managers did show willingness to work with Border Patrol in preventing environmental laws from getting in the way of its activities on federal lands.

Several environmental laws had interfered with Border Patrol monitoring and restricted access to areas where illegal cross-border activity is taking place.

On one occasion in Arizona, it took Border Patrol more than four months to get a permit from land managers, by which time “illegal traffic had shifted to other areas.”

“As a result, Border Patrol was unable to move the surveillance system to the locale it desired, and during the 4-month delay, agents were limited in their ability to detect undocumented aliens within a 7-mile range that could have been covered by the system,” the report said.

The GAO cited “limited staff” and lack of funds within land management units as reasons for permit delays.

In New Mexico, red tape requiring “environmental and historic property assessments” of an area which illegal aliens were known to use had prevented Border Patrol from monitoring that span of the border for almost eight months.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands, has introduced legislation that would prohibit environmental laws from interfering with Border Patrol operations.

Border Patrol is a component of the Department of Homeland Security.