Human Rights

Bush Policy: Quick Border Fence Trumps the Environment

Current controversy aside, the border "fence" is one of those harebrained schemes that might be funny if it weren't so cynical and racist.
Fear not, America: the Bush administration is not giving up on its immigrant-blocking border fence.

On Tuesday, it declared that it's going to ignore some 30 environmental laws and regulations in order to accelerate its project to build a wall separating the United States from Mexico. Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, issued the order, with an ominous warning. "Criminal activity at the border does not stop for endless debate or protracted litigation," he said. Cutting through the legal red tape "will enable important security projects to keep moving forward."

Like fear-mongering, flouting the law is part of the daily grind in the Bush administration -- but in this case, Chertoff is doing nothing illegal. The power to waive the law in the name of national security was granted to him specifically by Congress in 2005. The "REAL ID Act," passed as a rider to an Iraq funding bill, declared that the head of the Department of Homeland Security could waive any laws standing in the way of "expeditious construction of … barriers and roads" along the border.

It was not the first time Chertoff has invoked such a waiver -- DHS has used them before to push through fencing in Arizona and San Diego -- but it was definitely his most sweeping order to date. It advances DHS's proposal to erect towers and high-tech surveillance equipment along a sprawling 470-mile span of the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Originally, such action was supposed to be a last resort, but, as Tuesday's order demonstrates, this is hardly proving to be the case.

Aside from the troubling implications of the DHS Secretary overriding the law to push politically-motivated agendas, many critics of this measure are the same who have long argued that a border fence would have a devastating impact on the environment in border areas. Among them is the Sierra Club, which last year took DHS to federal court to try to get Chertoff's special powers revoked. (They lost. Aside from the fact that the REAL ID law included a provision essentially insulating it from court review, in December, a federal judge found nothing unconstitutional about Chertoff's power's, since he can only exercise them on a case-by-case basis.) "Secretary Chertoff chose to bypass stakeholders and push through this unpopular project on April Fools' Day," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope on Tuesday. "We don't think the destruction of the borderlands region is a laughing matter."

Chertoff's response to environmentalists has been to turn around and say that, in fact, it is illegal immigration that is bad for the environment. "I've seen pictures of human waste, garbage, discarded bottles and other human artifact in pristine areas," Chertoff said last fall. "And believe me, that is the worst thing you can do to the environment."

Current controversy aside, the border "fence" is one of those harebrained schemes that might be funny if it weren't so cynical and racist. A perennial favorite of the anti-immigrant right, the idea to construct a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico has been afloat for decades. More recently, historic immigration levels and the post-9/11 political landscape have legitimized the project in the name of national security. Part of a broad emphasis on border control by the Bush administration, which likes to boast about its success keeping out "illegals" -- under Bush, the budget for border security has more than doubled, from $4.6 billion in 2001 to $10.4 billion -- the border fence was officially codified in the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

Passed by the House and Senate in September 2006, the Secure Fence Act mandated the construction of a barrier stretching along a 700-mile portion of the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border. The measure was a bipartisan effort; with the midterm elections weeks away, many lawmakers considered it a political imperative. As Texas Republican John Cornyn put it, bluntly: "The choice we were presented was: Are we going to vote to enhance border security, or against it?" The bill passed 80 to 19 in the Senate. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted for it.

But confusion about what kind of shape the "fence" would take emerged almost immediately. "No sooner did Congress authorize construction of a 700-mile fence on the U.S.-Mexico border last week than lawmakers rushed to approve separate legislation that ensures it will never be built, at least not as advertised," the Washington Post reported in early October. What was supposed to be an order to build a long and towering concrete wall had quickly morphed into the White House and DHS's desire to allocate funds for a "virtual fence," emphasizing surveillance technology and "tactical infrastructure," to build what Bush called "the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history." Logistical confusion aside, on October 26, 2006, Bush signed the Secure Fence Act into law.

For an administration that has so cunningly displaced government with marketing, the border fence was a PR problem from the start. Aside from the fact that it's a costly mess of a project that has angered people across the political spectrum, on the ground in Texas, Arizona, and other states, the administration has infuriated local municipalities by systematically overriding their say in what happens in their own backyard. (In Texas, to date, it has sued 50 landowners for access to their properties.) The massive project has even underscored the country's reliance on immigrant labor. In one rather delicious twist of irony, two months after Bush signing the Secure Fence Act, a California company called Golden State Fence Company was forced pay some $5 million in fines for hiring illegal immigrants. Around the same time, a December 2006 study by the Congressional Research Service estimated that the cost of building a double steel fence -- which supporters of the wall argue is necessary for it to be effective -- at a whopping $49 billion, a figure that didn't even include the high cost of acquiring hundreds of miles of private land or, for that matter, the high cost of private contractors who would likely be doing the job.

It didn't help that the idea of a border fence had become associated with wingnuts like the Minutemen, an anti-immigrant group founded in 2004 by retired accountant Jim Gilchrist, who decided that when it came to enforcing the border, it was time for people to take matters into their own hands. Recently, infighting has dragged the down the movement -- Arizona-based Minuteman Civil Defense Corps leader Chris Simcox, who once lovingly described the fence to be as "our high-tech, double-layered gauntlet of deterrent" has been accused of massive mismanagement of member donations -- and last fall, CNN aired an embarrassing report on the Minutemen, partly laying out what their efforts have wrought. (The answer: A "cow" fence. And a lot of confusion.)

On the government side, the border fence project has been plagued with management and technical problems -- particularly the "virtual" fence that DHS has made a priority. This past February, the Government Accountability Office released a report on "Project 28" -- a surveillance initiative focusing on 28 miles of the Arizona border -- concluding that the project is severely delayed. A contract to implement the project was awarded to Boeing in September 2006 to the tune of $67 million. (It has actually been paid over $85 million.) Halfway into its three-year contract, it became clear it was becoming a costly failure. At a government hearing on Feb 27, 2008, DHS officials admitted to myriad technical setbacks, including problems with Boeing's software. Gregory Giddens, head of the DHS Secure Border Initiative, said the virtual fence will be finished some time in 2011 instead of by the end of this year.

(Meanwhile, a frustrated Michael Chertoff, who once sported a welding mask for CNN cameras to demonstrate his commitment to the border fence, jotted down angsty musings on his DHS "Leadership Blog." "I've seen this system work with my own eyes, and I've talked with the Border Patrol Agents who are using it. They assure me that it adds value. That's what matters to me, and it's a fact that cannot be denied.")

Anti-immigrant activists have been angered by such setbacks, arguing that the concrete wall has always been the way to go. As Ira Mehlman, national media director for anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform said last month: "the virtual border fence is virtually useless and an actual waste of money."

News of Chertoff's power grab on Tuesday should please those who want the government to stop screwing around with costly technology and build that concrete wall already. On CNN Tuesday, Lou Dobbs (whose new life mission seems to be to convince the American public that battling immigration is the most important part of the War on Drug) applauded the measure, praising Chertoff -- "Good for him. This shows real resolve" -- while also (rather hilariously) anticipating the protests that will follow from what he called those "snarky little chipmunks on the left."

Despite Chertoff's claims that the border fence can be completed by the end of 2008, its construction will more than likely extend into a new presidential administration, meaning that either Obama, Clinton or McCain will inherit the project. At this point, none will say anything of substance about how they will take it on. With immigration poised to be a major campaign issue, now would be a good time for them to recognize it for the misguided mess that it is.
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