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Lawmakers Call for Hearing on INS Ditch

Times Staff Writer

Four San Diego-area lawmakers representing the U. S.-Mexico border area have called on U. S. Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh to convene a public hearing in San Diego on the controversial federal proposal to build a 4.2-mile ditch along the border.

The request, in a letter dated Tuesday, underscores a widespread sentiment among local officials who say they have been left out of the planning for a major proposal that has provoked outrage on both sides of the international border.

The request also illustrates the considerable confusion that still reigns regarding the ditch plan, much of which remains a mystery despite many news accounts.

To this day, said San Diego Councilman Bob Filner, whose district includes the proposed path of the ditch, no one from the federal government has officially contacted his office about the plan. “All I know is what I read in the papers,” said Filner, who opposes the ditch concept and is one of four local lawmakers who signed the letter to Thornburgh.

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Plan’s Status Murky

The ditch proposal was revealed in The Times in January, catching area lawmakers by surprise. But the plan’s status and genesis remain murky.

Among the key unanswered questions is whether there is any requirement for a public hearing, a type of forum that is often mandated for public works and other development proposals, even relatively minor ones. Spokesmen for both agencies involved in the ditch plan--the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the International Boundary and Water Commission--said they did not know if such a hearing is required in this case.

Another source of confusion is the ditch’s current status. Officials say the proposal is undergoing an environmental review, but it is unclear who is in charge of the assessment: Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington, said the boundary commission is doing the job, while Bob Ybarra, secretary for the commission’s U. S. section, said the INS is conducting the study, with the advice of the boundary panel.

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Assessment by April

Either way, officials said, the assessment should be ready this month or next. Public comment will then be solicited, authorities said. Austin voiced the hope that the ditch will be in place by this fall.

Joining Filner in calling for a San Diego public forum on the ditch are three other area lawmakers whose districts include the swath to be carved by the channel: County Supervisor Brian P. Bilbray, Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-La Mesa) and state Sen. Wadie Deddeh (D-Bonita). Not all are opposed to the ditch: Bilbray says he has yet to decide.

“Our concern,” wrote the four, “is that the communities most directly affected by the proposal (the South Bay area of San Diego County) have not had an opportunity to review or comment on the proposed ditch project.” Such comment, the politicians noted, is routinely sought “with countless other federal projects.”

Loye Miller, chief spokesman for Thornburgh in Washington, said the letter had not yet been formally received, but he added that the nation’s top law enforcement official would certainly weigh the request.

Thornburgh is the chief officer of the U. S. Department of Justice, parent body of the INS. Also involved in the ditch proposal is the relatively obscure boundary commission, a 100-year-old El Paso-based body that consists of U. S. and Mexican representatives and that works on a wide range of border issues.

Dual Purposes for Ditch

The INS says the 5-foot-deep, 14-foot-wide proposed ditch--to extend about 3 miles to the west of the Otay Mesa port of entry and 1.2 miles to the east of the port--would deter smuggling by vehicles and assist in alleviating long-term drainage problems along the border. As far back as 1986, according to official accounts, the boundary commission sought to construct a channel in the area for drainage. Last year, officials say, the INS became involved and a decision was made to propose construction of a ditch that would alleviate both the drainage and smuggling problems.

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Critics in both the United States and Mexico have maintained that the ditch would do little to stem drug-trafficking and the smuggling of undocumented immigrants but argued that it would serve as a vivid symbol of the failure of two nations to work together creatively on cross-border problems.

Immigration authorities have rejected criticism that they have excluded local government input in the ditch plan. They note that anyone is free to express their opinions to the INS or to the boundary commission.

At the request of U. S. Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs has agreed to hold a public hearing on the ditch and a number of issues affecting U. S.-Mexico relations.


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