South Texas Leaders Blast Plan To Speed Up Border Fence

South Texas leaders blast plan to speed up border fence

Houston Chronicle
April 1, 2008, 10:59PM


Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday that he's planning to waive about three dozen federal laws and regulations to finish building 670 miles of fence along the southwest border by the end of 2008. Here are some of the laws:

Endangered Species Act

Clean Water Act

National Wildlife Refuge

System Administration Act

Eagle Protection Act

Religious Freedom

Restoration Act

Otay Mountain Wilderness

Act of 1999

Antiquities Act

Noise Control Act

Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Farmland Protection

Policy Act

Texas border land owners, mayors and wildlife groups blasted the Bush administration's sweeping plan to waive nearly three dozen federal laws to speed construction of a border fence by year's end.

Using authority granted by Congress, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday it plans to issue two waivers to complete 670 miles of fencing in four border states. DHS says it has finished 309 miles of fencing, leaving 361 miles to be constructed by a December deadline.

''Criminal activity at the border does not stop for endless debate or protracted litigation,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement. ''These waivers will enable important security projects to keep moving forward.”

Border leaders, however, continue to stress the fence is a heavy-handed and ineffective approach to security that will harm endangered species, force landowners to sell ancestral river property and destroy habitat that supports ecotourism on the Texas border.

One DHS waiver will be used to complete a 22-mile combined river levee-fence project in Hidalgo County. The second waiver covers an additional 470 miles of fencing through 2008 and future years in Texas and three other border states. The waivers are the largest employed by DHS since its fence project began.

Two environmental groups, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, in March asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that earlier DHS waivers of federal law are unconstitutional.

''The Bush administration's latest waiver of environmental and other federal laws threatens the livelihoods of the ecology of the entire U.S.-Mexico border region,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

The laws the governments seeks waivers for represent legislation such as the Clean Water Act and more obscure regulations such as the River and Harbors Act of 1899.

Federal wildlife officials said they are concerned the waiver of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws will threaten the survival of a number of animals by allowing the fence to be built through a 90,000-acre wildlife corridor they spent $100 million assembling in South Texas.

One endangered animal is the ocelot, a small wildcat whose remaining population of less than 100 is confined to ranches and wildlife refugees in deep South Texas.

''It's an animal under incredible pressure,” said Nancy Brown, a spokeswoman for the Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. ''When you throw in one more barrier, it's one more layer of disruption for an animal that already is on the brink of extinction in the United States.”

DHS officials in Washington, D.C., confirmed they are negotiating the establishment of a mitigation fund of up to $50 million proposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The fund would pay for the purchase of additional habitat for endangered species affected by the fence.

Meanwhile, Texas landowners, including Roma City Council member Noel Benavides, say a proposed 18-foot fence will do little to deter illegal entry in the brushy South Texas terrain. In the Rio Grande Valley, 70 miles of fencing are planned

''The Rio Grande, between Roma and Brownsville, is almost 300 miles of river and you're setting up 70 miles of fence is that going to do away with the crime (Chertoff) is talking about?” said Benavides, whose family has owned river frontage since the 1700s.

''Or are they just symbolically putting up something so they can say they did something?”

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, who chairs a coalition of border leaders, expressed outrage at DHS for not having meaningful consultations with local officials. In January, a federal judge approved a DHS lawsuit to survey city land before Foster and the city had received a copy of the suit.

''I'm just a yahoo from Eagle Pass, Texas, but this is just the absolute height of folly,” he said.

Foster said his city's top crime problem is an occasional Mexican shoplifter caught at the local mall. ''If shoplifting is a matter of national security, we have a problem,” he said.

DHS officials said they've contacted 600 landowners and held 100 meetings with local officials and town hall meetings along the Southwest border.