Border Patrol Projects Caught Up for Months in Red Tape, Government Study Shows

Border Patrol agents trying to keep up with the pace of illegal immigration along the southwest border have gotten stuck in a kind of bureaucratic limbo, with a new government report showing federal regulations have stalled projects for months.

In one case, it took the Bureau of Land Management almost eight months to issue a permit allowing Border Patrol to move an underground sensor in New Mexico. In another, Border Patrol officials were denied permission to improve maintenance on roads and surveillance in California, forcing the patrol routes north. In another, it took more than four months for the agency to get permission to move "mobile" surveillance in Arizona -- by that time, illegal immigrant traffic had shifted.

These anecdotes are included as part of a Government Accountability Office study, a draft version of which was obtained by The report was commissioned to review lawmakers' concerns that environmental and preservation regulations are hampering efforts to secure the border and found that those regulations had in fact limited agents' access to the land they're supposed to patrol.

"With limited access for patrols and monitoring, some illegal entries may go undetected," the report said.

The clash between border agents and federal preservation officials goes back decades. Border agents want access to federal land, but several other agencies are tasked with protecting that land from human interference. Tire tracks, for instance, can trap water and disrupt the ecosystem.

This inter-agency conflict might ordinarily amount to a typical bureaucratic turf war -- but it's gotten more attention in recent years as agents have driven illegal immigrant traffic away from urban crossings and diverted a lot of it into the remote, tough-to-patrol federal land mass that makes up more than 40 percent of the southwest borderland.

As a result, large swaths of America's wilderness and park land, hit by a wave of smuggler traffic, have been deemed too dangerous for visitors. Much has been closed off to the public. Border Patrol has nearly doubled its patrol force in the last five years but has run into roadblocks in trying to get better access to the land.

According to the GAO report, supervisors at 17 of the 26 federal land stations said their access had been limited over land management laws, "resulting in delays and restrictions in agents' patrolling." Often, this meant they couldn't get permission for routine projects in a "timely manner."

New Mexico agents said it could take six months to obtain permission to maintain or improve a road, or move surveillance equipment. In the case of the eight-month delay, the Bureau of Land Management had to take extra time to perform a "historic property assessment." In another case, Border Patrol was prohibited from placing a sensor tower inside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona because of its status as "wilderness." They had to move the site to a state-owned portion of the monument, an area that gave the tower a smaller range.

The GAO report also detailed how locked gates had been put up in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, blocking access to administrative roads because vehicles could "threaten the habitat of the endangered Yaqui chub fish." Certain supervisors are allowed to give vehicles access on a "case-by-case basis."

Despite the red tape, most agents told the GAO that overall security had not been affected. One supervisor told the GAO that the gates were not affecting "operational control." Rather, the biggest problem agents reported was the "remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain."

The report was requested in February 2009 by 13 House and Senate Republican lawmakers. One of those lawmakers, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the results confirm "there is a serious problem on the ground" stemming from federal regulations.

"The majority of border patrol agents state that their access to federal lands is being affected by these regulations," he said in a written statement. "When you take a look at the track record of the border patrol you will see that they are extremely effective and successful in the border areas they are able to routinely patrol -- private and state lands. Unfortunately, this does not include federal lands and it should."

Bishop has introduced a bill to prohibit the Department of Interior from denying land access to Border Patrol.

Environmental and border officials have tried to improve cooperation. The departments of Homeland Security, Interior and Agriculture signed a comprehensive agreement in 2006 granting border agents access to federal land under certain conditions.

The Interior Department repeatedly has said the agencies work closely together and that there is no substantive conflict. The department had no comment on the GAO draft report.

The GAO started its study in December 2009, reviewing data from 2004 to 2010.