House Republicans have inserted language into legislation revamping the U.S. intelligence system that would allow the Homeland Security secretary to waive any federal law interfering with construction of a 14-mile anti-immigration fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Democrats, environmentalists and Native American groups have protested the provision, saying it would allow construction crews to harm critical habitat and imperiled species and possibly damage Indian artifacts. The measure, championed by California's Republican Reps. Doug Ose and David Dreier, gives the Homeland Security secretary the right to skirt all laws he determines "necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section."
Heather Taylor, deputy legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the provision could waive federal safeguards including toxic waste laws and child labor standards.
"They're using security fences along our borders to subvert most federal laws," Taylor said. "It's shameful."
But Ose said the proposed rule change is crucial to finishing the last three miles of the fence, which has been under construction since 1996 and runs between the Pacific Ocean and the Otay Mountain Wilderness along the San Diego-Tijuana border.
"You're either for securing the border or you're not," he said. "I'm sorry about the trade-offs."
To reinforce an existing section of tin fence, federal officials plan to transfer soil from area mesas to a canyon, and the sedimentation will end up filling area wetlands, said Jim Peugh, the San Diego Audubon Society's conservation chair, a move he said would deprive several vulnerable birds, butterflies and plants of needed habitat.
Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), who tried unsuccessfully to fight a version of the provision when it passed the House, 256 to 160, on Oct. 8, said the measure was unnecessary and would likely spark a round of lawsuits, delaying the project.