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  by  Jonathan Osborne

The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations along with the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forest, and Public Lands hosted a joint hearing Friday titled “The Border: Are Environmental Laws and Regulation Impeding Security and Harming the Environment?”

The Congressmen in attendance were Rob Bishop of Utah (Resources Subcommittee Chairman), Jason Chaffetz of Utah (Government Reform Subcommittee Chairman), Darrell Issa of California (Government Reform Committee Chairman), Steve Pearce of New Mexico (as special guest member), John Tierney of Massachusetts (Government Reform Subcommittee Ranking Member), Dale Kildee of Michigan, Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, and Silvestre Reyes of Texas (as a witness).

The witnesses were divided into three panels: Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, representing El Paso and his former occupation as a border patrol chief, on the first panel; Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Thorsen of Policy, Management, and Budget at the U.S. Department of the Interior, and Deputy Under Secretary Jay Jensen for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture on panel two; and, George Taylor and Gene Wood with the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, Arizona rancher Jim Chilton, and Anu Mittal with the Government Accountability Office on panel three.

Friday was a busy day as Congress wrapped up business on the FY2011 budget agreement and prepared for the Passover/Easter recess. While the hearing was organized days in advance and is a necessary step to proceed on  legislation (Notably, Rob Bishop’s H.R.1505, National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act), it was nevertheless a marathon hearing with Members from two different committees present, frequent disruptions as a result of votes and floor debate, numerous witnesses, multiple rounds of questions, and a sense of some Members wanting to make a bold statement before leaving town.

The hearing lasted roughly four hours, from 9:30 AM to 1:30 PM, and could have continued if Members, staff, and witnesses didn’t need to catch flights home. It was a spirited debate. Likewise, it was interesting to see Members of Congress not affiliated with either the House Judiciary or House Homeland Security Committees discussing issues relating to immigration and border security.

Utah Representatives Bishop and Chaffetz had a particularly productive hearing, asking tough questions and making the point about security being at risk because of overlapping bureaucracies. Chairman Chaffetz set the tone for the hearing with a GAO (Government Accountability Office) statistic that only 129 of the 2000 miles of our southern border are secure, threatening our overall national security. In opposition, Mr. Tierney used his opening statement to make the point that environmental protection and border security are not mutually exclusive.

In addition, Chairman Bishop, one of the best debaters in Congress, made a great opening speech. He said, “The issue is illegal entrance and it is unacceptable. It’s not just people coming across the border in search of a better life. American citizens are being threatened and killed.” Furthermore, he said that the memo of understanding (agreement of cooperation between the Departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Interior regarding border lands) has failed because it was designed to fail. He continued by saying that our environment is being trashed by illegal entry and went on to read a very strong and rather poetic line that “A sovereign country has to control its sovereign lands.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona (Resources Subcommittee Ranking Member) was scheduled to make an opening statement, but was tied up in floor debate on the budget (he missed the entire hearing). Mr. Grijalva represents a border district and his statement could have served as both a committee statement and witness testimony. However, Rep. Silvestre Reyes testified instead drawing on his experience as a former border patrol chief and representative of a border district. Contrary to the tone of urgency expressed by Chairman Chaffetz and Chairman Bishop in their opening statements, Mr. Reyes essentially tried to calm the room by asserting that the border is not a lawless region and claimed that El Paso was the safest city in the United States. Consecutively, Chairman Chaffetz contradicted Mr. Reyes during the question period by emphasizing that security is more of a concern in the rural areas.

Rep. Steve Pearce, who is not a member of either Congressional committee, was invited to participate as a guest of the respected chairmen because of the proximity of his district to the southern border. Mr. Pearce’s New Mexico district neighbors Mr. Reyes’ Texas district and he thought it was necessary to respond to the claim that El Paso is “the safest city” in the country. Specifically, he asked Mr. Reyes about a major highway near El Paso being shut down last year due to border problems. Mr. Reyes responded by arguing that the highway was shut down due to gang activity and that the location of the highway and its proximity to the border was just a coincidence. Of course, neither side made the point that the gangs in question are a direct result of the border problem.

Mr. Pearce continued by conveying that his constituents are concerned about bars on their windows and gang signs on their barn doors while there is still only a barb wire fence separating the United States from Mexico for long stretches of the border.

The second panel of witnesses testified on behalf of the Administration. All three witnesses essentially used their opening statements to collectively argue that the problem of bureaucratic overlap impeding security is not as bad as everyone claims. In pure disbelief, Chairman Chaffetz used his question time to berate the witnesses. He said, “You can’t say everything is rosy and fine. People are dying.” He went on to assert that our environmental regulations are forcing border patrol officers to patrol on foot instead of by vehicle in order to save a cactus or roadrunner. He then returned to his earlier point that only 129 miles of the border are secure and asked why no one in the Administration was outraged.

Deputy Chief Vitiello responded with a very ambiguous answer. He simply said the framework is in place to respond to these problems, which caused Chairman Chaffetz to yield back his time, obviously upset by the lack of witness cooperation. Even Ranking Member Kildee was distressed and told the witnesses to raise the bar to a higher level.

Rep. Pearce used his time to question the witnesses about a picture he had seen of a shotgun attached to a trip wire that was discovered in the middle of the New Mexico wilderness. Like Mr. Chaffetz, Steve Pearce was at the point of frustration. He asked, “Are you saying these pictures don’t exist. It concerns me that all three witnesses can’t tell me if the situation has been cleaned up…right in my backyard.”

Rep. Lynch of Massachusetts used his time to express concern about a report which indicated there were 600 more homicides in Juarez, Mexico than all of Afghanistan last year. He then scolded the witnesses saying, “You need to get your act together. We expect you to protect the border. I’ve been to Iraq 22 times and I think I need to spend more time in Mexico by these reports.” He went on to emphasize that “we need to get serious about this” and that “you’re inviting Congress to set the rules.”

After the Committee recessed and returned from floor votes, Ranking Member Tierney opened questions by asking if any of the witnesses could point to an instance where someone died because of wildlife regulations. All the witnesses said “no.” Deputy Chief Vitiello even returned to his earlier statement that there was framework in place to solve the bureaucratic overlap problems.

During a second round of questions, Chairman Chaffetz used his time to ask why most problems take place in Tucson sector. Deputy Chief Vitiello responded by saying, “We’re having great success” and that the security problem involves other sectors as well.

The Committee then moved to the third panel, whose positions were more in line with the remarks made by Chairman Chaffetz and Chairman Bishop, expressing frustration with the Administration. Specifically, Arizona rancher Jim Chilton made an impressive opening statement. He boldly said, “I’m tired of bureaucratic double speak” and emphasized that national security should not be trumped by environmental laws. He claimed that most ranchers like him oppose new federal wildlife reserves near the border because “They are gifts to the drug cartels.” Furthermore, he said that when the lands become protected, the access roads deteriorate and can’t be patrolled by border patrol vehicles.

Mr. Chilton continued by claiming that scouts for the drug cartels know where the border patrol is located at all times and that ranchers cannot leave their homes unguarded for longer than two hours. He said, “We live with weapons next to our beds.” Furthermore, he emphasized that he carries two guns while working on his own land and still prepares to run for his life.

During an exchange with Chairman Bishop, Anu Mittal with the GAO said the environmental regulations have provided flexibility for the border patrol to access protected lands, yet they still defer to other departments like the forest service. This just brings up a question similar to one asked on the Homeland Security Committee’s hearing on “operational control” a couple of months ago. Particularly, why is the Administration not serious about protecting the border? If the President and relevant department secretaries were to make border protection a priority, Congress would not be forced to straighten out the problem with a four hour hearing and subsequent legislation.

At the end of the day, Congress left town and the witnesses went home. However, some of the witnesses returned to a war zone of smugglers and drug traffickers. It’s easy to look at our border problem from undisclosed locations in Washington, D.C., but it’s an entirely different and very personal issue when your life is in danger and your property is threatened at ground zero.

I can’t fault these Members of Congress for expressing frustration. Congress can pass hundreds of laws, but they have no consequence if the executive branch of government has no desire to manage the problem.

I love the Southwest United States. It’s beautiful, vast, and very American. I think we should protect the wildlife and territory for future generations to appreciate. Likewise, it’s critically important to protect the sovereignty of our nation. I believe we can be successful in accomplishing both tasks when our leaders are committed to managing overlapping jurisdictional problems. Additionally, a stronger security presence on our protected lands can only help protect wildlife from the destruction caused by smuggling. However, if the current administration cannot manage the problem successfully from a thousand miles away, then it’s time for Congress to step and pass laws that will help those on the ground take action without them.

JONATHAN OSBORNE is the Chief Legislative Analyst for NumbersUSA 
Tags:  
Environment
Illegal Immigration
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