WASHINGTON — A group of House Republicans say Border Patrol agents should be granted direct control over U.S. borders, even on federal lands managed by other agencies.
Lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday to transfer operational control of lands along the federal border to the Department of Homeland Security, instead of the Interior Department or Forest Service. The land agencies would still manage national parks, forests and other public lands, but would not have authority to block Border Patrol agents from acting as they see fit to secure border areas.
The lawmakers say the change is needed to improve border security, which they say is hampered by federal land managers more concerned with protecting wilderness and endangered species than securing the border.
“The Border Patrol is not being allowed do their job. That has to change,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
At a news conference Wednesday, Bishop and other lawmakers accused federal land managers of “hiding behind the law” to place wilderness or endangered species ahead of border safety. “It’s unforgivable,” he said.
Bishop and other lawmakers cited the March 27 death of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz as an example of the failure of current policy. Law enforcement officials say Krentz’s killer likely entered the United States through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, a remote area near Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Mexico.
The Fish and Wildlife Service manages the 2,300-acre refuge, where motorized vehicles are widely prohibited and roads and surveillance structures are scarce. In one instance, a tower used by Border Patrol agents was removed because of concerns about endangered species, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee.
King called the proposed legislation “essential to restore common sense” along the border. He called it absurd that the Border Patrol, an arm of the Homeland Security agency, must negotiate with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to control the border.
“This is Alice-in-Wonderland type material,” King said. “The average American wouldn’t believe it.”
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said federal land managers are committed to controlling the border and work effectively with the Border Patrol.
Salazar himself spent two days on the Texas and Arizona border last month, Barkoff said. She called the visit “extremely productive” for both land managers and federal, state and local law enforcement. Salazar toured the border by helicopter and foot and was briefed by Border Patrol agents and land managers.
“Secretary Salazar believes that we can meet the twin goals of protecting our national security and our natural resources,” Barkoff said in an e-mail, adding that federal agencies have made significant progress on border issues since President Barack Obama took office last year.
Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said his agency is committed to a positive working relationship with Interior and the Forest Service, which manages vast acreage along the U.S.-Canada border, as well as smaller parcels on the southern border.
“We respect the missions of these agencies and, as challenges arise, we will continue to develop workable solutions on special status lands,” Chandler said.
But Bishop said federal border lands have become a dangerous, “unpatrolled highway” open to drug smugglers and other criminals who endanger American lives and cause severe environmental damage. He and other lawmakers said federal land managers routinely hinder the Border Patrol from securing U.S. borders by requiring lengthy and expensive environmental analyses, and even prevent Border Patrol agents from entering some areas.
Rancher Krentz “paid the ultimate price” for the negligence of authorities in the United States and Mexico, Bishop said. Krentz was found shot to death March 27 on his ranch near Douglas, Ariz. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said evidence at the scene appears consistent with the known behavior of drug runners working for cartels based in Mexico. Cochise County investigators have said they don’t have a motive or suspects.
Three members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have asked Napolitano to boost border patrols in the Boot Heel of New Mexico, about 10 miles from the area where Krentz was shot.