Environmentalists criticize immigrant bill
Republic Tucson Bureau
Feb. 11, 2005

Susan Carroll

TUCSON - A controversial bill that bars undocumented immigrants from getting driver's licenses also contains vague language that could allow the U.S. Border Patrol to waive all environmental laws along the nation's international borders, environmentalists said.

Supporters of the "REAL ID Act," introduced by House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., contend the bill seeks only to speed up the construction of a 3 1/2-mile stretch of fencing along the California/Tijuana border. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said during hearings that the fencing project has been held up due to bureaucratic red tape and lawsuits.

Environmentalists contend the legislation, which passed the House Thursday, is part of a larger push by the Department of Homeland Security to gain greater access to sensitive public lands and wildlife refuges along the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. Border Patrol spokesmen in Tucson and Washington, D.C., did not return phone calls Thursday seeking comment on bill's possible impact.

Brian Segee, a staff attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of the Defenders of Wildlife, said the bill's wording is "incredibly vague and far reaching."

"The bill has been characterized by supporters as applying to only one San Diego border fencing project, but in reality that provision is waiving all laws along all areas of all of our international borders," he said. In a 510-page draft Environmental Impact Statement, DHS has outlined possible plans to expand U.S. Border Patrol agents' access within some of Arizona's wildlife preserves and conservation areas.

The government closed the public comment period for the draft Jan. 29.

Segee said the proposed changes could seriously affect Arizona's roughly 350-mile stretch of international border, which includes the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the protected habitat of the Sonoran pronghorn.

"Arizona's border area is very rich in protected land as well as imperiled species," Segee said. "We don't need to trash our wilderness areas in order to achieve national security."

Reporter Sergio Bustos contributed to this article.