U.S. Acts to Finish Divisive Border Fence

Times Staff Writer

In a rebuff to California officials and environmentalists, the Bush administration cleared the way Wednesday for completion of a 14-mile-long border fence that will run through coastal wetlands to the Pacific Ocean near San Diego.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived environmental laws for the first time since Congress gave him that authority in May. Finishing the last 3.5 miles of fence is expected to cost about $32 million.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 16, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Border fence -- An article in Thursday’s Section A about the U.S.-Mexico border fence near San Diego said the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement that it was waiving environmental and other laws, thus permitting completion of the project, would be published today in the Federal Registry. The publication is the Federal Register.

Combined with older existing fencing along the Mexican border, Chertoff said, the newly completed fence will form a security corridor -- including two new roads, additional fencing, stadium-style lighting and surveillance cameras -- for U.S. Border Patrol agents.


Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar said agents would then have 200 acres to patrol, not 2,000.

“Bottom line, this is about border security,” Aguilar told reporters. “We’re addressing the vulnerabilities here” in closing a border to potential terrorists.

Reducing the territory that needs patrolling also will deter illegal immigration because of the “certainty of arrest in that zone,” he said.

Aguilar pledged that border agents would be “good stewards of the environment,” and he blamed much of the area’s degradation on border crossers who hide in the wetlands and litter in the area.

With Chertoff’s announcement, the department formally waived enforcement of environmental and other laws that had delayed or threatened to delay the project.

In a statement issued by his office, Chertoff promised to “act in an environmentally responsible manner consistent with the security needs of the nation.”


Environmentalists doubt that promise, citing government plans to use soil from a nearby mesa to fill in a canyon, dubbed Smuggler Gulch.

“This will cause a tremendous amount of damage to the Tijuana Estuary, particularly downstream,” said Jim Peugh, chairman of the conservation committee for the San Diego Audubon Society. “The waiver means they don’t have to respect water quality or endangered species or labor or child safety laws. It’s a very chilling precedent.”

Federal officials have come to San Diego and “talked, but they don’t listen,” Peugh said. He argued that the border could be protected “without cutting off the tops of the mesas to fill in the canyon. The problem is they insist on a straight freeway across the canyons. They have chosen to do it in an environmentally damaging way.”

Litigation has dogged the project since Congress approved the border fence in 1996. Last year, the California Coastal Commission refused to grant permits to complete the fence, saying the harm to sensitive habitats outweighed security benefits.

The commission’s executive director, Peter Douglas, said Wednesday’s federal action trumped state law.

“This is a clear victory for the politics of fear,” he said. “They were intent on circumventing all the environmental protections we spent decades putting into place. They were able to get through the back door what they couldn’t get through the front. And there’s nothing we can do about it except mourn the day.”


A coalition of environmental groups -- the Sierra Club, the San Diego Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Assn., San Diego Baykeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity -- had filed a lawsuit alleging that the government had not issued environmental impact statements.

“I don’t believe that the waiver can be applied to our litigation,” coalition lawyer Cory Briggs said in an e-mail. “We already have a pending suit based on the law that applied when it was filed.... If not for it, there would be nothing standing between the administration and its acting outside the laws.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for balancing environmental and security considerations in completing the fence, which is known as the Border Infrastructure System.

“The federal government appears to have gone to great lengths to allay and avoid environmental concerns, including public hearings and numerous studies, and Californians appreciate that,” Schwarzenegger’s office said in a statement on Wednesday.

Outraged by what they considered obstructionism by environmentalists, congressional Republicans passed the Real ID Act in May, which among other things authorizes the Homeland Security secretary to waive any legal requirements that he “determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction” of barriers, like border fences, under his jurisdiction.

Hailing Chertoff’s move Wednesday, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) castigated “the dilatory efforts which have restricted this national security element for so many years.” Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, likewise decried those who “stymied [the project] by litigation and obstructionism.”


In a statement, Sensenbrenner noted that he had visited Smuggler Gulch in March.

“Individuals literally sat on the border fence, admitting publicly they were waiting for darkness before illegally entering the U.S.,” he said. “It was obvious that any terrorist could also sit on the fence and await the fall of night to enter California, at a point less than six miles from the largest U.S. naval installation on the West Coast.”

Since the first part of the fence was constructed along more than 10 miles of the border, U.S. officials say, apprehensions of illegal immigrants have fallen, as has other crime. The administration says completing the border fence will help further.

Aguilar said Chertoff’s action -- which goes into effect Friday when it is published in the Federal Registry -- did “not mean we want to build a wall around the Southwest border.”

Some environmental and human rights groups think the government is planning nothing less.

“Alarmingly, it does appear that the U.S. government is moving toward constructing a series of mega-fences along the border,” said Peter Galvin, director of conservation in San Francisco for the Center for Biological Diversity. “These massive fence projects don’t actually cut the number of people crossing, just the location.”

When border agents plug a security hole in California, he said, it pushes illegal immigrants to the east, where they encounter harsh, sometimes deadly conditions in the desert.

As for environmental implications, he said, “sealing off the biology between the United States and Mexico is a disaster. These animals don’t know political boundaries.”