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Washington • Border patrol agents would be able to legally bypass major environmental laws within 100 miles of America's borders under Rep. Rob Bishop's legislation passed by the House on Tuesday that brought a swift rebuke from Democrats and wilderness advocates.
On a nearly party-line vote, Bishop's border security bill passed the House with a series of related measures, though it now heads to the Senate where prospects for passage aren't as good.
Bishop pitched his bill as a way to shore up the porous borders abutting public lands where he says federal agents are being hamstrung in combatting illegal immigration by environmental laws protecting large tracts of land.
"The Border Patrol's inability to routinely access the entire border region leaves us not only vulnerable to the trafficking of drugs but also potential terrorists and others who wish to harm our country," Bishop said in a statement after the vote. "With the passage of this legislation the Border Patrol will finally have the access necessary to help us achieve a truly secure border a sovereign nation should have nothing less."
The bill, if it becomes law, would allow border patrol agents to bypass 16 federal laws in securing the border and apprehending illegal crossers, including the ability to use motorized vehicles in wilderness areas, build fences or install equipment.
Democrats and environmentalists termed Bishop's bill a "ruse," arguing that Republicans' goal was to undermine federal protections of clean air and water and treasured landscapes.
"Either they are using public concerns about immigration and drugs as a ruse to gut our nation's environmental laws," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., "or they really do believe that we need to create a militarized, surveillance zone in which a paramilitary border patrol can be free of the laws that govern the rest of the nation."
Markey says a six-year-old agreement between the departments of Homeland Security, Agriculture and Interior is working well and those agencies have not requested any changes. That document allows agents to pursue border crossers into sensitive wilderness areas if the agents believe there is a danger to life or to national security.
Bishop, who heads a House subcommittee over public lands, has pushed this issue for years, claiming that federal agents are unable to chase down illegal immigrants or suspected drug runners because of locked fences on lands controlled by the Interior Department or U.S. Forest Service.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, called Bishop and fellow Republicans "cynical" for trying to exploit concern about security as a reason to undermine environmental laws that have stood for decades.
"This is not about immigration, this is not about border security, this is [about scrapping laws and rules] that the extremists in the Republican Party have wanted to rid themselves of for years," Grijalva said. "This is not about securing anything; this is about a gift to polluters."
The Wilderness Society and other groups called the bill's passage an "overreach" that will hinder hunting, fishing, hiking and other recreational activities.
But the measure also had its supporters, including from the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, which said it shows a "resounding message that the people of the United States are serious about establishing complete border security."
Bishop's bill was one of 14 included in an omnibus measure that also included language to remove an expectation that a power company building hydropower plants in Spanish Fork Canyon would have to give the federal government the first $161 million in profits.
Even if the package of bills gets through the Senate, it could face a veto.
The White House signaled its opposition to the measures late Monday, saying specifically that Bishop's bill would "thwart successful efforts by agencies to collaborate on border security while protecting our natural and cultural resources."