ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS HAMPER BORDER SECURITY
10/30/2011 12:36 PM
GOP seeking waiver of environmental laws at border
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal agents trying to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border say they're hampered by laws that keep them from driving vehicles on huge swaths of land because it falls under U.S. environmental protection, leaving it to wildlife — and illegal immigrants and smugglers who can walk through the territory undisturbed.
A growing number of lawmakers are saying such restrictions have turned wilderness areas into highways for criminals. In recent weeks, three congressional panels, including two in the GOP-controlled House and one in the Democratic-controlled Senate, have moved to give the Border Patrol unfettered access to all federally managed lands within 100 miles of the border with Mexico.
Two of the panels expanded the legislation's reach to include the border with Canada.
The votes signal a brewing battle in Congress that will determine whether border agents can disregard environmental protections as they do their job.
Dozens of environmental laws were waived for the building of the border fence, and activists say this is just another conservative attempt to find an excuse to do away with environmental protections.
But agents who have worked along the border say the laws crimp their power to secure the border.
Zack Taylor, a retired Border Patrol agent who lives about nine miles from the Arizona-Mexico border, said smugglers soon learn the areas that agents are least likely to frequent.
"The (smuggling) route stays on public lands from the border to Maricopa County," Taylor said, referring to the state's most populous county. "The smugglers have free rein. It has become a lawless area."
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