GAO report: Border Patrol's hands tied by Interior, Agriculture rules

Several White House agencies charged with enforcing environmental laws are preventing thousands of Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border from disrupting illicit trafficking operations, according to a study by the investigative arm of Congress.

The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that about 15 percent of the 26 Border Patrol stations in the southwestern region say the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department have prevented them from catching illegal aliens coming over the border.

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Nearly half of the thousands of miles of the U.S.’s border with Mexico – which saw about 556,000 people cross over it illegally last year – is federally maintained by the Interior Department and the Forest Service, which are charged with upholding the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Under federal law, before Border Patrol agents can build roads or establish surveillance posts on this land, they must first receive permission from the land managing agencies. This process can take months while the land management agencies conduct tests to ensure the environmental safety of the land and its species, the GAO report said, resulting in the souring of actionable intelligence with the ranks of the Border Patrol.

“These delays in gaining access have generally lessened agents’ ability to detect undocumented aliens in some areas, according to the patrol agents-in-charge,” the report states.

In Arizona, for example, Border Patrol agents said it took four months to obtain permission from the appropriate agencies to move a mobile surveillance system, leaving a 7-mile range of border unwatched over the course of those 16 weeks. By the time the agents received permission, the illegal traffic had shifted to other areas, the report stated.

In New Mexico, a Border Patrol agent told the GAO that it took agencies 8 months to conduct an historic property assessment in an area where the Border Patrol needed a road to be improved so they could move an underground sensor.

“During this period, agents could not patrol in vehicles or use surveillance equipment to monitor an area that illegal aliens were known to use,” the report reads.

But despite the delays and restrictions that the Border Patrol has reported, 85 percent of its working force along the border said that “the overall security status of their jurisdiction is not affected by land management laws.”

The report’s findings come in the wake of an announcement made earlier this week by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano saying that arrests of illegal border-crossers has declined for the fifth year in a row, down some 72 percent from 2000 levels. Napolitano attributed the decline in border arrests to a weak economy and stronger levels of enforcement by the U.S.

Over the past five years the Border Patrol has nearly doubled the number of agents that patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to its current size of 20,500 and the Department of Homeland Security has spent about $1.6 billion to provide technological resources to the area. Nearly three months ago President Obama ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to descend on the region to protect the border, as violent crime continues to rise in Mexico and fear of spillover aggression stokes the fears of U.S. residents.