Federal rules governing public lands along the border cause some delays but do not prevent the Border Patrol from handling its assignment to secure the border, a federal report released Tuesday says.
As part of its 11-month evaluation, the Government Accountability Office interviewed agents-in-charge at 26 Border Patrol stations with primary responsibility for patrolling federal land along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although 17 agents reported delays and restrictions to patrolling on federal land, 22 of them said "overall security status of their jurisdiction is not affected by land-management laws," the report says. "Instead, factors such as the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain have the greatest effect on their ability to achieve operational control."
Of the four Border Patrol agents-in-charge who said the laws affect their ability to secure the border, two have not formally asked for better access to federal lands, and two others had their requests denied by Border Patrol senior officials who said there were more important needs, the report found.
"Yes, there have been delays. Yes, there have been restrictions placed on them," said Anu Mittal, director of the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment Team. "But it really hasn't affected their operation control."
The report was requested by 12 Republican lawmakers led by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah and Rep. Peter King of Iowa. Bishop is the ranking member on the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. King is the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Five of the 12 legislators who requested the report are from Texas and one is from California, but none represents a district along the U.S.-Mexico border. None is from Arizona, which has the busiest stretch of border.
In April, Bishop introduced a bill that would give Border Patrol agents total access to public lands where they currently must adhere to some restrictions. Bishop justified the legislation based on authorities' belief that the person who killed Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz on March 27 fled into Mexico through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, 17 miles east of Douglas.
The Border Patrol agents must get permission from supervisors to open locked gates and patrol the San Bernardino refuge, according to the report. The rules are in place to protect the habitat of threatened and endangered species.
The GAO report shows the need to give the Border Patrol better access to federal lands, said Bishop spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin.
"They can't wait for that delay," Subbotin said. "When they are radioing in for access to these lands with locked gates, they are missing critical opportunities to catch these criminals."
Subbotin said the opinions of 22 agents-in-charge should not overshadow the serious problems that exist along a porous border that leaves the country vulnerable to terrorists.
"When you speak with Border Patrol agents who are retired and in a position to be 100 percent candid, you get a completely different story," Subbotin said.
Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol agents' union in Arizona, agreed that the opinions of agents-in-charge can't always be trusted because they risk future promotions by going against the administration.
Judd, however, disagrees with Bishop's office that the agency needs total access to federal lands.
"They are protected lands for a reason," Judd said. "We don't need to give the Border Patrol carte blanche, but I definitely think we need to look at what might be hindering national security."
On Oct. 8, Bishop's office sent a news release with a draft version of the GAO report highlighting the "shocking details of how federal policies are preventing the U.S. Border Patrol's access to some of the most crime-ridden areas of the U.S.-Mexico border located on federal lands."
The news release didn't mention the finding that 22 of the 26 agents-in-charge said the laws didn't affect their ability to secure the border. Subbotin said the office released the report in the name of transparency, to allow people to read the draft and then the final version.
But leaking a GAO report before it is finished is unusual and says something about Bishop's integrity, said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.
"The GAO report was commissioned as an attempt to gain any sort of clout to support Bishop's ill-conceived bill," Clark said. "It's not grounded in any real crisis. It's fear tactics designed to build public support for a highly controversial piece of legislation."
The GAO report confirms what people working along the border have known all along, Clark said.
"Land management restrictions that do exist are not impeding the ability to secure the border," Clark said. "And they are important to maintain to protect the integrity of the land and public resources."
On StarNet: Read more about border-related issues in Brady McCombs' blog, Border Boletín, at go.azstarnet.com/borderboletin
Did you know
More than 40 percent of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border is managed by the the Department of the Interior's land management agencies and the Forest Service. And these federally managed lands account for more than 97 percent of all apprehensions made by the Border Patrol.
Federally managed lands in Arizona include the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, southwest of Tucson; the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, east of Douglas; and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Southwestern Arizona.
Source: Government Accountability Office
GAO report on web
To read the entire GAO report, go online to www.gao.gov/products/ GAO-11-38
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org