San Diego Union Tribune

June 18, 2004

Illegal border crossers leave mark on land
Senate panel hears testimony of damage to reservation, refuge


WASHINGTON An unrelenting flow of illegal immigrants is taking its toll on the Mexico-Arizona border, according to testimony before a Senate committee that told of thousands of abandoned vehicles, tons of trash, significant damage to an Indian reservation, and of a wildlife refuge marred with an ugly web of illegal pathways and roads.

The illicit traffic of immigrants and drugs is "causing a flood of crime, chaos and environmental destruction on our reservation," Ned Norris Jr., vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, testified yesterday. The reservation shares a 75-mile border with Mexico.

Border Patrol clampdowns in urbanized border regions from San Diego to Texas have pushed illegal traffic toward the reservation, which has become the busiest corridor for illegal traffic along the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Norris said the reservation's portion of the border has flimsy fortification: a three-strand barbed wire fence.

"And that's where the fence is up," he said. He added that in many places the fence has been ripped down by smugglers who drive vehicles loaded with immigrants or drugs into the United States.

Since the beginning of 2003, Norris said, 2,675 vehicles have been abandoned on reservation lands by smugglers who routinely steal trucks and cars in Phoenix and Tucson, drive them into Mexico and load them with drugs or immigrants for the return trip.

Immigrants crossing Indian lands by foot are littering it with 6 tons of trash per day, he said.

Also testifying to the Senate Commerce Committee was Roger Di Rosa, manager of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona.

Di Rosa described a "spider web" of trails and roads that "damages and destroys cactus and other sensitive vegetation, disrupts revegetation efforts, disturbs wildlife and their habitat, and causes soil compaction and erosion."

He provided a moment of comic relief in an otherwise grim recitation when he said Cabeza Prieta's border was "in a little better shape" than the reservation's.

"We have a four-strand fence," he deadpanned.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., described the disorder at the border as "totally unacceptable."

"I'm shocked by what I've heard," said Nelson.

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., convened the hearing as part of his effort to win passage of legislation that would boost border enforcement with an array of high-tech tools, including unmanned aircraft.

"It's technology that's going to give us the capabilities that we need, particularly in areas where there are long borders which are simply not enforceable" without high-tech monitoring systems, he said.

But McCain also used the forum to make a pitch for immigration reform that would provide legal status for most of the estimated 7 million immigrants working illegally in the United States. He also wants to establish a guest-worker program to fill jobs that employers are unable to fill with U.S. citizens.

McCain sought support from Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security. Hutchinson oversees the Border Patrol, which in March announced that it was beefing up its presence on the Arizona border.

McCain said that without a program to match immigrant workers with jobs, the press of immigrants across the border will continue even if "we tighten it down all the way from Texas to San Diego."

After the hearing, McCain said he saw no chance for immigration reform legislation in this election year.

"There's no courage to address the issue," he said, acknowledging the controversy it stirs.