WASHINGTON – A bill that would grant the Department of Homeland Security unprecedented access to federal lands near the border was sharply criticized Friday for giving the department unchecked authority.
The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would let DHS waive 36 environmental-protection laws for patrol activities within 100 miles of U.S. borders.
Opponents of the legislation went so far as to call the bill, HR1505, “particularly stupid” during Friday’s hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. They called it overly broad and said it opened the door for DHS to completely disregard environmental-protection laws.
“1505 may succeed in decreasing immigration, but only because the water, air and environments of border communities will be so degraded, no one will want to come here,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson.
John Leshy, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, testified that the legislation would make DHS “immune from review by the courts, except for constitutional claims.”
Supporters of the bill, however, said the current setup — a memorandum of understanding between DHS and federal land-management agencies — makes it impossible for Border Patrol to do its job.
“There’s a problem here in that Border Patrol is being restricted,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the bill’s sponsor. “They are not the problem.”
The memorandum of understanding requires Border Patrol officials to get permission from land-management agencies before conducting operations on federal lands, from maintaining roads to installing surveillance systems.
Claude Guyant, founder of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, said the current system is an unnecessary distraction.
“Border Patrol’s focus must be on preventing illegal entry,” said Guyant.
While Border Patrol agents have the discretion to bend some rules in emergency situations, they typically have to comply with all laws affecting an area they want to access. In designated wilderness areas, for example, that would mean traveling only on foot or horseback.
Kim Thorsen, an Interior Department law enforcement official, testified that Border Patrol agents do have the latitude to do their jobs under the current setup.
“There is absolutely no restriction for Border Patrol to pursue anyone anywhere on federal lands,” said Thorsen, the Interior deputy assistant secretary for law enforcement, security and emergency management.
In April, the Government Accountability Office reported the agreement had its flaws and the agencies were not always in full cooperation, but that most of the supervising officers surveyed said federal land laws were not affecting their areas’ security.
But Gary Thrasher, a veterinarian and rancher from Hereford, Ariz., told the committee he’s witnessed the impact of federal land laws on border security.
Thrasher, an Arizona Cattle Growers Association board member, said that more than once he’s had immigrants “crawl through the cat door” to spend the night in his locked barn.
Republicans on the committee said the bill was an attempt at keeping citizens like Thrasher safe, not a way of granting DHS unlimited power.
“All we’re trying to do is protect our nation, protect the people of the United States,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Leshy — referencing the unchecked power of the British king who moved the U.S. to declare its independence — said those who oppose the bill are also trying to protect the people.
“1505 would make DHS the George III of our age,” he said.