Sunday, May 24, 2009

Will Congress Restore the Rule of Law or Build More Border Walls?

By Scott Nicol

The walls that are tearing through border communities and wildlife refuges have nothing to do with national security, immigration policy, or drug control. The construction of border walls merely allows for political posturing during election cycles. Politicians and pundits decry our nation’s “broken borders,” and blame undocumented immigrants for all of our nation’s ills, from unemployment to failing schools to municipal budget shortfalls to crime. Scapegoats are convenient, especially when they cannot vote, and scapegoating distracts voters from politicians’ inability to solve any of these problems. And so, two weeks before the 2006 mid-term election, the Secure Fence Act was signed into law. Two an a half years later the walls that it mandated are nearing completion, and we as a nation must decide what happens next.

One path forward was proposed by Representative Raul Grijalva, whose southern Arizona district is now home to mile upon mile of border wall. Last month he introduced the Border Security and Responsibility Act (HR 2076). This legislation seeks to prevent future border security measures from repeating the worst abuses that have accompanied border wall construction.

While the Secure Fence Act established walls as the primary strategy for controlling the border, the Border Security and Responsibility Act would instead, “give first priority to the use of remote cameras, sensors, removal of non-native vegetation, incorporation of natural barriers, additional manpower, unmanned aerial vehicles, or other low impact border enforcement techniques.” Border walls, which have been shown to be largely ineffective, go to the back of the line.

HR 2076 would also require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, comparing the full range of possible strategies for protecting the border. Along with looking at whether border walls actually stop anyone, DHS would have to factor in land acquisition costs, construction costs, maintenance costs over 25 years, impacts on wildlife, impacts on hydrology, and the costs of mitigating adverse impacts to Federal, state, local, and private lands and waters. The costs and benefits of border walls would then be compared to similar analyses of adding more Border Patrol agents, so-called “virtual” fences, natural barriers, removing non-native vegetation, and increasing cooperation with Mexican and Canadian authorities.

Sign on private property near Brownsville, Texas that will be cut off by the border wall.

Rather than shutting out border residents and other stakeholders, Rep. Grijalva’s bill would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to consult with other federal agencies, tribal governments, local officials, and private property owners to minimize the negative impacts of border security measures. Real consultation that allows for meaningful input from those who live and work along the border would be a tremendous change for the better.

Most importantly, it would strike the provision of the Real ID Act that gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive any law that he or she sees fit in order to build border walls. No longer would one unelected Administration appointee have the power to sweep aside laws passed by Congress and signed by presidents. The rule of law would be restored along our nation’s southern border.

And this restoration is critical. When former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff waived 36 federal laws last year, he was not simply cutting red tape. He knew that in building border walls he would be violating those laws. Those laws were enacted to prevent the kind of damage that we see everywhere border walls have been built.

In California’s Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, mountainsides above the Tijuana River are currently being dynamited to build the border wall. When DHS proposed building walls in these rugged mountains the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns that the dumping of tons of rubble, and the erosion that would follow, would clog the river and violate the Clean Water Act. Normally that would be a moot point, because it is illegal to drive a motorized vehicle in a Wilderness Area, much less plant dynamite. But with the Wilderness Act and the Clean Water Act waived, blasting is occurring today, and will continue through the summer.

Texas border communities rely on the Rio Grande for irrigation and drinking water. But Secretary Chertoff waived not only the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act, but also “all federal, state, or other laws, regulations and legal requirements of, deriving from, or related to the subject of” those, and 34 other, laws. So where the wall has been built, in El Paso and Eagle Pass and Hidalgo and Brownsville and other border communities that draw water from the Rio Grande, all laws “related to the subject of” water are no longer in effect. This absurd situation has prompted the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 and the Hudspeth County Conservation and Reclamation District No. 1 to take part in a lawsuit challenging constitutionality of the Real ID Act’s waiver authority.

"Floating fence" border wall design on top of the flood control levee in Cameron County, Texas

The border wall has been tremendously destructive, both to American lands, American communities and the American tradition of rule of law. But with most of the Secure Fence Act’s 670 miles of border wall close to completion, some might ask why the provisions of the Border Security and Responsibility Act are needed.

The answer came on the same day that Representative Grijalva introduced HR 2076, when Rep. Duncan D. Hunter introduced the Border Sovereignty and Protection Act. Apparently, Hunter Junior inherited the bad politics of his father along with his name and Congressional seat. His father bragged in campaign ads that he had built the border wall, and that it was a stunning success. Ignoring the question of why more walls are needed if the first walls had already done the job, Hunter Junior’s bill requires, “two layers of reinforced fencing along not fewer than 350 miles of the southwest border” in addition to all that has already been built. It also provides a blank check to pay for construction.

"Triple-layer fence" border wall design near San Diego, California

Grijalva’s bill requiring consultation, a cost-benefit analysis, and the restoration of the rule of law currently has 20 cosponsors. Hunter’s bill, requiring another 350 miles of double-layered border wall and providing unlimited funds to pay for them, currently has 26 cosponsors.

When the first sections of border wall were built in southern California in the mid 1990s, the Congressional Research Service found that they had “no discernible impact” on the number of undocumented immigrants who entered the United States each year. Rather than realize that the wall was a failure, border wall proponents, most notably Duncan’s dad, decided that the wall was not long enough. Now that another 600+ miles of border wall have been built, and the Border Patrol routinely refers to them as “speed bumps,” the cry goes up for more walls. In the perverse logic of those who have tied their political careers to the border wall, if the wall is a failure, it is simply because it is too short.

If this logic is allowed to prevail, mile upon mile of new border wall will be built with no concern for the communities or ecosystems that lay in their path. That is why passage of Representative Grijalva’s Border Security and Responsibility Act is so critical. It restores a degree of sanity to border policy, forces the federal government to respect the legal rights of border residents, and gives us a seat at the table when decisions are made regarding our home.

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