By Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah)
Most Americans agree that as a sovereign nation we should have a safe and secure border, both in the north with Canada and in the south with Mexico. While we have made strides over the past 10 years to improve security, serious vulnerabilities remain.
Federally managed land located throughout the southern U.S. border has become a haven of criminal activity. The areas with the highest presence of traffickers and smugglers are typically those where the U.S. Border Patrol is unable to maintain a routine presence. This is due to land management policies that restrict access. To enable the U.S. Border Patrol to overcome literal and figurative roadblocks that prevent them from securing the entire border, I introduced the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. This legislation allows the Border Patrol to waive certain environmental restrictions only on federal land. The House is expected to consider this legislation on today (June 19) as part of the 14-bill House Natural Resources legislative package.
In total, the U.S. controls approximately 660 million acres, 20 million of which exist within the southern U.S. border region. Among the areas managed by the federal government are national parks, wildlife preserves, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, forests, and wilderness. There are more than 4.3 million acres of wilderness within the southern border region. Each of these areas has its own management criteria, which includes restrictions on access. For instance, wilderness areas do not allow motorized or wheeled access, only foot traffic and horses. Subsequently, the Border Patrol is limited in their ability to conduct patrols and apprehensions, and place surveillance equipment in these areas.
In 2009, I wrote Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano to request further information on the challenges the Border Patrol faced regarding access to federal land.В Her response recognized that access was an issue. She stated that, вЂњThe USBP, in accordance with the 2006 MOU, makes every reasonable effort to use the least impacting means of transportation within wilderness; however along the southwest border it can be detrimental to the most effective accomplishment of the mission. For example, it may be inadvisable for officer safety to wait for the arrival of horses for pursuit purposes, or to attempt to apprehend smuggling vehicles within wilderness with a less capable form of transportation.вЂќ
Drug and human trafficking has become so prevalent on public lands that warning signs dot the region, cautioning visitors that they may encounter drug smugglers. In fact, most of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has been closed to Americans. Recently however, a section of the monument was opened to visitors if they are accompanied by an armed escort.
The irony is that denying the Border Patrol routine access is self defeating. The greatest environmental damage to the so-called вЂњprotectedвЂќ areas is caused by the traffickers themselvesвЂ” this is evidenced by the vandalism and refuse left behind. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality estimates that drug cartels or human smugglers leave close to 2,000 tons of trash each year in Arizona alone. In the same 2009 letter from Secretary Napolitano, she stated that, вЂњOverall, the removal of cross-border violators from public lands is a value to the environment as well as to the mission of the land managers.вЂќ
Trafficking drugs into the U.S. is not the only crime occurring on federal land. The most egregious and violent crimes are committed against women. Many women who pay cartels for passage into the U.S. are assaulted along the way and often raped as a form of final payment. В Evidence of these horrific acts can be found throughout the desert where cartel operatives have left undergarments hanging from trees as a trophy of the brutal crime. Sadly, these have come to be known as вЂњrape trees.вЂќ
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that 126 miles or a mere 15% of the southwest border is considered вЂњcontrolledвЂќ. With such paltry statistics, it is understandable why there is such an inextricable sense of anger and anxiety about the overall status of border security. It is clear that before we begin to develop reforms to existing immigration policies, we must first have proven control over the entire border region, including federal land. Allowing illegal residents to stay in the country may buy the president a few political votes but it is not the right first step. The border must first be secured and without enabling the Border Patrol to have access to public lands they will never be able to truly fulfill their mission.