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A Better Way to Secure Our Border

Along this nation’s southern border, hundreds of miles of fence now snake over hills, through arroyos, and across deserts and grasslands. The fence, for many, symbolizes national security. But a closer look shows a planning and construction process fraught with problems as environmental protection laws are circumvented, community voices are muted and property owners along the border are ignored. A new measure, tucked into a Senate spending bill, would tighten prescriptions for border fencing. The measure moves us in the wrong direction.

[IMGCAP(1)]As Californians, we are acutely aware of our porous southern border. We share the nation’s desires for national security and orderly immigration. We deeply lament the death of a park ranger in 2002, killed along the border by violent drug runners. We share the anguish of Americans living along the border whose lives and livelihoods are imperiled in a sometimes lawless environment. We’ve seen the many trails that crisscross the border, damaging delicate lands.

But the serious matter of border security requires professional discretion, not Congressional prescriptions. And it requires application of the nation’s laws that require transparent planning, environmental review and citizen participation. The Border Security and Responsibility Act (H.R. 2076) introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) would re-establish these common-sense provisions in order to create an effective border security policy. Unfortunately, until the Border Security and Responsibility Act is passed, our border security policy will continue to struggle.

Under the current waiver provisions of the Real ID Act of 2005, the Department of Homeland Security is building border infrastructure with no public planning, no review under environmental, archaeological and other laws, and no community input. The circumvention of laws has expedited fence-building, but haste has also brought tremendous waste and unnecessary impact to people, lands and wildlife.

For example, a year ago a typical monsoon rain tested the effectiveness of a newly constructed, 15-foot pedestrian fence along the border near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Organ Pipe managers had warned that a fence would trap debris, cause backwater pooling and flooding, damage patrol roads, and erode and undermine the fence itself. The warnings, which proved prophetic, were ignored, leaving the taxpayer to fund repairs.

In our state of California, at Otay Mountain, Border Patrol officials familiar with the steep terrain suggested that expensive fencing would offer no additional border security since the area was largely inaccessible. Near Douglas, Ariz., landowners along the border wondered at fencing proposed for areas with steep cliffs and gullies that could not be traversed on foot or in a vehicle, while adjacent areas currently used by drug runners went unfenced. The Border Patrol made some design changes but left some issues unaddressed. Drug runners continue to penetrate the border.

To their credit, Border Patrol officials have often strived to modify fence design in some locations to accommodate migrating wildlife. Working with federal land managers, they have revised their plans on occasion to place cameras and fences in locations less harmful to park lands and refuges. And the Department of Homeland Security agreed to provide $50 million to mitigate some damages to endangered species caused by the border infrastructure. Sometimes, modest modifications of border infrastructure were possible because the Department of Homeland Security had professional discretion to determine which tools — vehicle barriers, tall pedestrian fencing, cameras or other technologies — would best enhance their ability to achieve operational control of the border.

We applaud these efforts, but these decisions depend on the goodwill and handshakes among agencies rather than on mandatory and transparent public planning processes. In addition, provisions in the Senate Homeland Security appropriations bill would prescribe 700 miles of pedestrian fencing whether experts conclude that it will enhance security or not.

National security requires that public officials can deter people from illegally crossing the border and, if they manage to cross the border, that they can be detected in a timely fashion and apprehended. Many homeland security experts view this challenge as multi-dimensional, requiring a combination of fences in some places, vehicle barriers, detection cameras or motion sensors elsewhere, and more personnel on the ground. We would not expect the Congress to mandate what specific weapons or tactics our military uses in particular circumstances. The same logic applies to the border.

The prescriptions in the Senate bill will mean high-cost infrastructure with adverse impacts on border communities, landowners, landscapes and wildlife. Greater border security is possible — and with fewer impacts to people and places. Those impacts could be minimized if national security experts, using their professional expertise and working with communities, determined what mix of fences, cameras, observation technologies and “boots on the ground— would best achieve operational control of the border.

Rep. Lois Capps (D) represents the 23rd district in California, which includes portions of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the Interior from 2005 to January 2009, is now an independent environmental consultant.

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