Improper Proposal

The Real ID Act would gut border environmental laws

Cruising this crime-ridden park on the Arizona-Mexico border, you don't expect to see Bambi and Thumper, though that might be nice for a change.

Instead, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is home to rampant drug traffic and illegal immigration. Sharing 31 miles of international boundary with Mexico, the park's 330,000 acres of rugged bluffs and bone-dry arroyos have become a war zone. Here, the fragile desert is shredded by clandestine smuggling routes, and federal Black Hawk helicopters haunt the skies.

But another assault may soon bombard Organ Pipe and other beleaguered border parks. A Republican measure now in Congress would allow the Department of Homeland Security to override all environmental laws on the international line. The proposal would grant the DHS director leeway to ignore the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other regulations when building roads and barriers along the Mexican boundary. It would also prohibit any judicial review of such decisions, making lawsuits against habitat-destructive projects pointless.

Tucked inside the controversial "Real ID" measure--which promises to stem illegal immigration by denying driver's licenses to immigrants--this autocratic proposal emerged from the U.S. House of Representatives attached to an emergency funding bill for Iraq. At press time, the plan is cloistered in a Republican-only House-Senate conference committee.

Few dispute the need for border security, or deny the devastation caused by constant trafficking through national parks. But critics call this approach a frightening concentration of power in the Homeland Security Department, and a profound weakening of public control over public lands. "This is a significant piece of legislation, and it's shocking," says Brian Segee, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. "It's a base, shameless form of politics that would remove any checks and balances."

Still, the measure has its supporters, among them Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe. "We have to protect our natural resources, and the flow of illegal immigration is causing significantly more environmental damage than building a fence," he writes in an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly.

On the ground, land managers are taking a wait-and-see approach. But Kathy Billings, superintendent of Organ Pipe, calls public oversight crucial. "Our whole mission is protecting this resource for the public," she says. The ESA and NEPA "are really good tools for that. We need to consider the cumulative impacts of any actions we take, and they're part of our tool box--they help us in planning any type of development."

The security proposal may also be a red herring: Public review was invited for an extensive border vehicle barrier through Organ Pipe, and it did little to slow construction--18 miles of barrier are already complete. Such examples make many question the motives behind this measure. To Rob Perks, a Washington, D.C., spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council, "It's just another part of the (Republicans') hostile environmental agenda--an attempt to streamline public lands projects without public oversight."

The measure's strange trajectory does reek of partisan politics. It was sparked south of San Diego, where the Homeland Security Department hoped to restrict cross-border traffic by erecting a triple fence, filling a notorious smuggling gulch and shearing off ridges to make patrolling easier. But in February 2004, this draconian approach was rejected by the California Coastal Commission, a state regulatory body. In response, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, from nearby El Cajon, proposed granting Homeland Security the power to override the commission's decision. And somewhere along the way, Hunter's measure morphed into a Republican juggernaut for gutting environmental laws along the entire border.

What has emerged is a threatening portent for already imperiled habitats, and for regional species such as the critically endangered Sonoran pronghorn and the border jaguar.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol officials are keeping a low profile, as the measure winds through Congress. "I think it would be inappropriate to comment on this" before it becomes law, says Mario Villareal, Washington, D.C., spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.

Among Arizona's congressional delegation, positions fall along party lines. "What we are talking about is a fence along our nation's borders to stop terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigration," writes Kolbe, a Republican, in his e-mail to the Tucson Weekly. "Building a security fence along our international border is appropriate and needed."

But Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva remains firmly opposed. "With this waiver," he says, "the Border Patrol can simply say, 'We need to cut a road, or we need to build a barricade or a detention area on public lands.' They can just do it--there's no wait, no public comment, no transparency."

Either way, he labels it a Band-Aid: "We're not going to see any appreciable reduction in the number of unauthorized entries into this country until we really deal with immigration reform," Grijalva says. In turn, current policies will continue to "have a devastating effect on our public lands, both with people going through, and also in the pursuit, apprehension and enforcement strategies of the Border Patrol."

Several attempts to obtain comments from Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl weren't successful. But from Washington, Segee, of Defenders, has been gauging the capitol climate. "Senator McCain's staff has expressed some concern over this," Segee says. "But I don't think Sen. Kyl's staff sees any problem with it."

Indeed, Sen. Kyl has emerged as a strong proponent of beefed-up law enforcement powers along the border. Coupled with the senator's dismal environmental record--and his airtight alignment with the armageddon-relishing Religious Right--his position isn't difficult to fathom. But solid answers are hard to come by: An earlier Tucson Weekly reference to the conservative senator as an "apocalyptic cowboy" ("Senator Strangelove, Jan. 6, 2005) apparently tweaked a nerve. Returning a call regarding this story, Kyl spokesman Scott Montrey simply left a surly voice mail. "This is Scott Montrey, from the office of the infamous apocalyptic cowboy," said the press secretary. "Call me back, and maybe I'll talk to you--if I'm in a good mood."

Apparently, Montrey's mood failed to lift: He didn't return several follow-up calls.

Meanwhile, down on the border, Roger Di Rosa is waiting and watching. "I view (the proposal) right now as kind of like being governed by a dictator," says Di Rosa, manager of the vast Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge near Ajo. "If the dictator is benevolent, and sits down and talks with his subjects about what he's is going to do, then that's good. It could potentially be a way to speed up the process of getting things done right on the border, such as vehicle barriers.

"The problem is, if the dictator is malicious, or not caring, then that dictator could expand or use it anyway he felt would benefit his agenda. And it could be detrimental, and set some improper precedent."

Improper indeed.