Western senator says killing of U.S. agent in Ariz. builds case for border security bill

By Phil Taylor

E&E Publishing

Army National Guardsmen scan the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday in Nogales. John Moore / Getty Images

The fatal shooting this week of a U.S. Border Patrol agent near the Arizona-Mexico border underscores the need for Congress to strengthen security on federal lands, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said Thursday.

Bishop’s office said it confirmed through the Department of Homeland Security and the state of Arizona that Agent Nicholas Ivie, 30, on Tuesday was killed by gunfire on Bureau of Land Management land about 5 miles southeast of Bisbee.

Bishop said that it remains unclear whether environmental laws or access restrictions played any role in the killing but that the incident illustrates the need for Congress to pass his bill H.R. 1505, which would free the Border Patrol from more than a dozen environmental laws on public lands within 100 miles of the Mexican and Canadian borders.

The House approved the bill in June as part of H.R. 2578, an omnibus public lands package that was opposed by most Democrats The package has stalled in the Senate, though a pared-down version of Bishop’s proposal gained bipartisan support in the upper chamber in 2009.

“The reassurances we’ve received from the administration over the past couple of years that the border is safer than ever before and it’s secure, it belies the reality of what happened,” said Bishop, who chairs the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, in a phone interview yesterday.

Securing the border — starting with passage of his bill — would build the confidence lawmakers need before tackling comprehensive immigration reform, Bishop said.

“And the fact that we still have the violence that is taking place there shows that we have not taken that step yet,” he said. “That’s why I think the bill is needed now more than ever.”

Bishop said he will be reaching out to senators in the coming days, starting with Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, to marshal support for the bill.

Coburn in fall 2009 garnered unanimous consent in the Senate to attach language to an Interior Department appropriations bill prohibiting funds from being used “to impede, prohibit, or restrict activities of [DHS] on public lands to achieve operational control … over the international land and maritime borders of the United States.”

Tuesday’s killing was the first of a Border Patrol agent since Brian Terry died in a shootout with bandits in Arizona nearly two years ago. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is scheduled to meet in Arizona today with U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar and Commander of Arizona Joint Field Command Jeffrey Self to offer condolences to Ivie’s family.

Napolitano will also meet with federal, state and local law enforcement officials at the Border Patrol station in Bisbee, Ariz., to discuss the ongoing investigation, said DHS spokesman Matt Chandler.

BLM spokesman Dennis Godfrey said he did not believe there were any access restrictions on the lands where the shooting took place. State, federal and private lands are interspersed in a checkerboard pattern there, according to a map provided by Bishop’s office.

“It’s very, very unlikely that there were any signs,” Godfrey said. “You’d walk onto that land and not know you’d change status.”

Democrats, environmentalists and immigrant-rights groups have pushed back strongly against Bishop’s bill, saying it exploits anti-immigration sentiments in order to undermine bedrock environmental laws. The bill has also emerged as a wedge issue in the race for Senate in Montana, where Democratic incumbent Jon Tester has criticized his challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), for supporting the measure.

“It’s a beleaguered border,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose 7th District covers most of the Mexican border but appears to stop short of where the shooting took place, said this summer “But the solution to the stress on that border is not to suspend laws that protect us.”

Environmental groups remain strongly opposed to the bill, arguing it would allow border police to damage sensitive wildlands and could close lands to hunters and anglers.

Bishop has argued that drug smugglers target public lands and impose far greater harm on the environment than the Border Patrol ever has.

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