The two bills, sponsored by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), would restrict federal and state law enforcement officials from patrolling an already porous border area that extends from Sonora, Mexico into Santa Cruz County, Ariz., critics charge.
However, some members of Congress and environmental activists maintain the legislation would provide for greater flexibility in enforcing the border while safeguarding natural treasures.
Grijalva has proposed extending federal wilderness protection to approximately 84,000 acres of the Tumacacori Highlands within the Coronado National Forest, which is located adjacent to the Pajarita Wilderness that runs along the Mexican border.
This wilderness designation would effectively push the Mexican border 30 miles to the north of its present location, according to Zack Taylor, a retired U.S. Border Patrol officer.
To be effective, he said, U.S. border security personnel must have the flexibility to move laterally along U.S. and Mexican territory in response to traffic, just as the defensive squad of a football team must mirror the movements of an opposing offense.
Grijalva’s bills would essentially create “safe havens” for criminals who smuggle illegal aliens and narcotics into the U.S., because law enforcement personnel would be hindered under the laws, said Taylor.
“Each stretch of the border has its own solution,” he told Cybercast News Service. “Once you have success in catching smugglers and illegal aliens at a particular crossing point, the next group simply moves laterally along the line, and then the border patrol must respond. They [the smuggler and the aliens] are the ones who decided where the Border Patrol works, not the Border Patrol.”
There is no point in going into an area where there are no alien crossings, Taylor said. Moreover, he pointed out, the Border Patrol has to wait until a crossing takes place before it can move.
“These bills would do great harm to our national security, because they would restrict our agents from operating in key corridors,” Taylor said. “Once this becomes known, it will be easier for smugglers and other criminals to predict the movements of our Border Patrol and to make adjustments.”
As it stands now, there is already a heavy concentration of criminal enterprises that involve both human and drug trafficking organizations, Taylor said.
Border security bills?
Grijalva introduced two pieces of legislation last year that remain a source of consternation for border security proponents.
H.R. 2593, the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act, would preclude border security officials from operating on federal land, while H.R. 3287, the Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness Act, would establish a wilderness zone at the precise point where one of the largest illegal entry points into the U.S. exists.
Chuck Cushman, founder and executive director of the American Land Rights Association, said if Congress passes Grijalva’s bills, it would create a “massive new opening” for illegal aliens.
“Drug smugglers and human traffickers would be protected, and the Border Patrol handcuffed,” Cushman said. “The bills will make it far more difficult to police an already challenging part of the border. They [the lawmakers] might as well pave a superhighway for illegals and just say openly, ‘This is how you get into the U.S.’”
Bonner Cohen, author of "The Green Wave: Environmentalism and its Consequences," told Cybercast News Service that he does not anticipate the Democratic leadership of Congress taking up Grijalva’s bills in the midst of an election year.
However, with Democrats expecting to pick up seats in both chambers this coming fall, the two bills should be viewed as examples of what may be coming down the pike, he added.
“Anytime you reduce the access of law enforcement, you make life easier for the smuggler,” Cohen said.
“Whether you are smuggling people or drugs, the coyotes on the other side of the border know the national forest is a corridor to promote their agenda. Having a new wilderness area placed adjacent to the existing corridor will just open the floodgates. Environmentalism is being used as pretext to harm national security,” he added.
Kent Lundgren, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers (NAFBPO), said the impetus behind the legislation does not come from any public outcry on the part of citizens in Arizona or in other border states, but is instead the handiwork of environmental activists connected with the Sky Island Alliance (SKI), a self-described grassroots organization formed in 1991.
The alliance has long opposed motorized activity in the Coronado National Forest and supports the creation of an “interconnected” conservation area across southeastern Arizona.
Matt Skroch, SKI executive director, expressed strong support for Grijalva’s Wilderness Act in testimony last year before the House Natural Resources Committee’s national parks, forests and public lands subcommittee.
“The Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness Act is a part of ensuring that our quality of life and access to premier wilderness lands keeps in step with the new demands placed on our landscapes,” Skroch said.
“The Tumacacori Highlands are near the international border with Mexico, and currently the border patrol maintains one of their few remaining horse patrol units in the area because of its rough topography and inaccessibility by vehicle,” he later continued. “From the beginning, proponents of the Wilderness bill made it clear that we had no intention of impeding the border patrol’s ability to do their job.”
Mike Quigley, the Wilderness Campaign coordinator for the Sky Island Alliance, told Cybercast News Service that border security and environmental protection should not be viewed as “an either or choice.”
The homeland security secretary has signed agreements with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior that provide for striking an appropriate balance, Quigley said. If Chertoff himself can make this acknowledgement, others should too, he suggested.
Moreover, the rugged nature of the terrain in some areas of Arizona act as a natural barrier against illegal crossings, Quigley said.
But Lundgren and other Border Patrol experts have a much different view of the legislation, which they have outlined in an open letter addressed to policymakers.
“It is imperative that the authority vested in agents and their ability to defend our borders remain seamless and unencumbered,” Lundgren wrote in the letter. “It is obvious that a wilderness designation, the most restrictive of all federal land designations, along our international border would create adverse impediments to efforts to perform these difficult and dangerous responsibilities.”
This past April, Grijalva, who serves as chairman of the subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, held a field hearing in Brownsville, Texas, that focused attention on the environmental impact of border fence construction. He was joined by congressional figures from both parties.
The Arizona Democrat has been a consistent critic of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s decision to waive regulations affecting a planned border security fence.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away an appeal from environmental groups that would prevent the federal government from waiving regulations during construction of the security fence along the U.S-Mexican border. (See Related Story)
Cybercast News Service made repeated phone calls to Grijalva’s office requesting an interview and seeking additional comment. The interview request was not answered.
However, Gloria Montano, chief of staff to the congressman, said opposing groups were responsible for circulating “disinformation” about the pending legislation. Moreover, she said, the two bills were separate and distinct from one another and addressed different issues.
Rosemary Jenks, director of governmental relations for Numbers USA, told Cybercast News Service, however, that the members of Congress who testified at the field hearing in Brownsville in support of the legislation “seemed more interested in protecting illegal immigration than they did in protecting natural assets.”
“If all they do is restrict border security, while allowing illegal immigration to continue unabated they will be complicit in destroying those public lands for future generations. I can tell you from personal experience that environmental devastation caused by the illegal flow is far greater than the environmental impact of a security fence at the border.”