Washington • A congressional committee approved a bill Wednesday that would allow the Border Patrol to sidestep environmental laws as it sought to block drug smugglers, human traffickers and undocumented immigrants from sneaking into the United States from Mexico.
The legislation is a top priority for Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who argues that restrictions on public lands have inhibited U.S. agents from tracking and arresting suspected criminals.
"This is about providing the Border Patrol with the tools they want and they need to achieve the mission that we gave them," he said before the Natural Resources Committee approved his bill on a vote of 26 to 17.
Border Patrol officials have publicly disagreed with the need for the law. And Democrats on the committee described the bill as a veiled attempt at gutting protections on wild lands.
"What in the world does the Migratory Bird Act or the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act have to do with the ability of the Customs Department to enforce the U.S. Border?" asked Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. "The entire point of this legislation has nothing to do with border security, with human trafficking, with smuggling. It is a clear and simple attack on environmental protection legislation."
The bill now goes before the full House, where it has a decent chance of passage, as Republicans hold a sizable majority.
Bishop asked the committee to adopt some changes to his legislation that he hoped would ease some concerns. He limited its scope to 100 miles from the borders with Canada and Mexico, eliminating any impact on the coastlines or with Hawaii.
His amendment also limited the federal agencies that could waive environmental laws to only Customs and Border Protection, and only for the purposes of building patrol roads, fences, surveillance towers or to use aircraft.
If passed, the legislation would expire after five years, giving Congress a chance to see if it was meeting its goals.
"We can no longer turn our backs on the violence, environmental degradation and rampant criminal activity occurring on our public lands," Bishop said.