On the day of its first foreign policy discussions with Mexico, the Obama administration remains mum on whether it will honor a campaign promise to alter a Bush administration policy establishing a massive fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, including in federally protected areas.
So far, the Department of Homeland Security has erected about 613 miles of new pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers to thwart illegal border crossers and drug smugglers trying to enter the United States.
While President Obama voted for the 2005 Secure Fence Act as an Illinois senator, he pledged on the campaign trail last year to review the Bush administration's fortification efforts, in part due to concerns about environmental impacts.
"I think that the key is to consult with local communities, whether it's on the commercial interests or the environmental stakes of creating any kind of barrier," Obama said last year at a debate in Austin, Texas.
While acknowledging that some areas may need fencing, Obama said deploying new surveillance technology and stepping up patrols would "be the better approach."
Yet almost three months into the new administration, neither Obama nor Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are addressing the issue. Meanwhile, construction is beginning on two new sections of the fence, one through the Rio Grande Valley near Brownsville, Texas, and another in the Otay Mountain Wilderness in California's San Diego County.
Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said Napolitano decided to allow border fence projects already contracted under the Bush administration to go forward. But she is reviewing the fence policy as part of a comprehensive examination of all immigration and border security programs. "She will discuss her review of immigration and border security policies once it is completed," he said.
Lloyd Easterling, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a DHS subagency, said, "As it stands right now, we're committed to completing the project at hand."
Proponents of the the border fence say the project is an effective deterrent to would-be illegal border crossers, and they cite government data showing precipitous drops in illegal border crossings at places like Yuma, Ariz., once a hot spot for illegal immigrants driving into the United States.
But critics point to a 2008 Congressional Research Service report that found the new fencing simply shifts illegal crossings to other, more remote locations.
Perhaps more important, any attempt by the administration to scale back the border fence is likely to attract intense public scrutiny at a time when Mexican drug cartel violence has flared up along the border, fueled in large part by guns smuggled from the United States. Obama is making his first visit to Mexico today, where among other things he will discuss the intensifying drug war, which killed 6,300 people last year.
Needs are critical
Even so, critics say they are dismayed by the Obama administration's slow progress in addressing the fence's environmental impacts.
"The need to address all the negative impacts that have already occurred is critical," said Michael Degnan, lands representative for the Sierra Club.
Matt Clark, Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said his group was "hopeful that the administration would quickly change course, and even reverse the Bush-era wall-building approach to border issues."
Defenders of Wildlife has joined a coalition of other environmental groups -- as well as faith-based organizations, immigration groups and border community organizations -- backing a bill to be introduced later this month by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) calling for mitigation of the environmental damage caused by the fence.
While the language of the Grijalva bill is still being hammered out, proponents say it will probably seek to reverse a 2005 provision allowing the Homeland Security secretary to waive any federal or state law deemed to interfere with fence construction, including the nation's core environmental laws. Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff invoked the waiver authority four times during his tenure.
In February, Grijalva and seven other members of Congress -- five from Texas and two from California -- sent a letter to the Obama administration asking for a suspension of fence construction. "Though there are places where a fence is the most feasible option, we strongly believe the Bush Administration's approach of constructing a fence along much of the Southwest border was ill-conceived as it was void of any meaningful input from the local communities or the Border Patrol Sector Chiefs who are most familiar with the challenges of securing our border," the letter read.
Jose Borjon, a spokesman for Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D), who represents the southeastern tip of Texas, said the congressman met with DHS officials two weeks ago and urged them to find an alternative to the border fence. "But that has not happened," he said. "Construction in Brownsville has begun."
Environmental groups, meanwhile, are concerned about fence sections in Texas, Arizona and California that have been built across wildlife refuges, national monuments, national conservation areas and other federal lands (Land Letter, Jan. 15).
In Arizona's San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, for instance, a pedestrian fence now stretches to the river's edge, where it is met by a river-crossing vehicle barrier and a new section of pedestrian fence on the other side. Clark of the Defenders of Wildlife said the area has been significantly degraded by the fence and construction of a temporary road down a steep embankment. "It's not a pretty sight," he said. "And even though they've got a couple of things to try to prevent erosion into the river, the damage has been done, and we are seeing increased erosion."
Newly erected sections of fence in Texas and Arizona bisect protected habitat for the federally endangered jaguar and ocelot, the Sierra Club's Degnan added. "We've seen lands that Congress protected in perpetuity scarred by roads and other damage," he said.
The Interior Department has tried to offset some of the effects under a January agreement with DHS establishing a $50 million mitigation fund (Land Letter, Jan. 26). Officials expect to release a list of mitigation projects this summer, but environmentalists say the funding will fall short of what is needed to fully mitigate the damage.
April Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.
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