Washington • Democratic lawmakers charged Friday that a measure being pushed by Rep. Rob Bishop is an unbridled assault on the nation's environmental laws under the guise of securing the border.
"How absurd can a piece of legislation be?" Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., asked at a news conference here. "This has got to be the epitome of stupidity."
Bishop's legislation, the subject of a subcommittee hearing Friday, would allow the Department of Homeland Security to waive any environmental regulation within 100 miles of America's borders and coastlines.
Bishop says that power is needed to secure the porous international line with Mexico because environmental laws currently hinder the border patrol's ability to chase down undocumented immigrants, drug smugglers and other criminals.
But Garamendi and two other Democrats say Bishop's real agenda is anti-environment.
The bill "has nothing to do with immigration. It has nothing to do with border security," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat whose congressional district runs along the U.S.-Mexico border. "It is a cover for an assault on 36 very fundamental environmental laws of this nation."
Democratic Rep. Ed Markey noted how far into his home state of Massachusetts Bishop's bill would allow Homeland Security to disregard any environmental law.
"This bill waives the Clean Water Act," Markey said. "We will not keep undocumented workers out of our country by letting pollution into our drinking water."
But Bishop's legislation had its supporters in his hearing on Friday.
Gary Thrasher of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association says he works within eyesight of the border throughout the year and Bishop's measure is needed to help combat the onslaught of border crossers. He said the violence in Mexico is spreading into the United States.
"Our homes, ranches, and families are 'sitting ducks,' our ranches are almost impossible to manage, and U.S. sovereignty of the isolated regions where we ranch is now all but lost," Thrasher said.
Bishop said Friday that critics of his bill are ignoring the serious environmental and security issues along the border and instead have resorted to name-calling.
"Anyone opposed to these efforts fails to recognize the gravity of the border crisis and the serious national security implications associated with policies that prevent the border patrol from apprehending and deterring dangerous criminals entering the U.S. illegally," Bishop said.
The congressman added that those opposed to his legislation are actually endangering public lands by allowing border crossers to destroy them.
Bishop, who chairs a Natural Resources subcommittee over public lands, says governmental restrictions on wilderness are keeping border patrol agents from patrolling large swaths of the border, barring road and fence construction and delaying critical equipment installation.
But border patrol officials have publicly disagreed with the claim.
P Ronald Vitiello, deputy chief of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, testified before the joint hearing in April that collaboration between his agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages national forests, and the Interior Department has worked well and they have all made great strides in ensuring border patrol agents have the access they need.