Friday, May 20, 2011

Congressional Nightmares Fuel a New Assault on our Borderlands

By Scott Nicol

In his recent speech in El Paso President Obama pointed to the buildup of border security personnel and infrastructure, and declining crime rates in border communities, to justify a renewed effort to enact immigration reform. This will be a tough sell in the current Congress.

Just three weeks earlier the difficulty of his task was on display in Washington DC when Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) displayed photos of headless corpses while shouting at Ron Vitiello, Deputy Chief of the US Border Patrol, during a committee hearing. Vitiello had enraged Representative Chaffetz by calmly asserting that, “While there is still work to be done, every key measure shows we are making significant progress along the Southwest border.”

The horrific pictures were not taken within U.S. borders, and so were outside of the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction, despite Chaffetz’ cries that “This is the kind of thing that we’re sending our agents to deal with on a daily basis!”

Chaffetz’ anger boiled over because Deputy Chief Vitiello was not following the Congressman’s script. The facts, that border communities are safe and apprehensions are down, were not welcome.

The Congressional hearing was intended to paint a picture of the U.S. southern border as a war zone, awash in blood and the mutilated bodies of innocents. In this telling, the Border Patrol fights valiantly to achieve “operational control” and quell the violence, but it is hamstrung by environmental laws and federal land managers who care more about endangered species than human life.

It was meant to promote HR 1505, the misnamed “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act.” Starting with the premise that the Border Patrol has been prevented from entering federal wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and national monuments along the southern border, it gives the Border Patrol carte blanche on federal lands.

Like the photos of headless bodies, this provision is based on a false impression of our southern border. The Border Patrol and federal land management agencies signed a cooperative agreement in 2006 allowing access to protected lands that Vitiello said works well. Rugged terrain and remote locations are the real problems reported by agents in the field, not restrictions imposed by land managers.

The bill goes on to exempt the Border Patrol from obeying dozens of environmental laws.

Its precursor, the Real ID Act, was used in 2008 to waive 36 laws along the southern border to erect border walls. The Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act were among those brushed aside to allow for construction that otherwise would have violated them. This resulted in severe environmental damage.

HR 1505 extends the 2008 waivers to cover all of the U.S. – Mexico border, the Canadian border, all maritime borders, and every square inch of terrain within 100 miles of them.

The waiver covers some of our nation’s most important protected areas, from Glacier National Park and the Boundary Waters to Redwood National Park and the Cape Cod National Seashore. Two-thirds of the population of the United States would also fall under the waiver.

Instead of thanking the Congressmen for freeing the Border Patrol from these legal burdens, Deputy Chief Vitiello undermined HR 1505’s premise. He confirmed the Government Accountability Office finding that “Most agents reported that land management laws have had no effect on Border Patrol’s overall measure of border security.”

The photos of headless bodies were displayed in an effort to discredit the Border Patrol’s testimony, and to burn a brutal image into viewers’ minds that would overwhelm the facts that Vitiello presented.

The angry tirades aimed at the Border Patrol made it clear that the “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act” really has nothing to do with national security. It does not help the Border Patrol, and they did not ask for it. It is nothing more than an assault on our nation’s public lands and environmental laws.

Speaking within sight of the border, President Obama said that “despite a lot of breathless reports that have tagged places like El Paso as dangerous… El Paso and other cities and towns along this border are consistently among the safest in the nation.”

America cannot develop rational policies that protect border residents and ecosystems by picking and choosing facts any more than we can support the rule of law by cherry picking which laws to obey and waiving the rest. With members of congress choosing fear over facts, ungrounded nightmares instead of FBI statistics, the reform that the president spoke of remains a distant dream.

Here is part one of the April 15 hearing on HR 1505

Here is part two. Rep. Chaffetz brandishes the photos of corpses around a half-hour into this clip.

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