Our guess is if more average Americans understood the realities of patrolling the border between Arizona and Mexico, they would find it as absurd as the $2.9 million a jury awarded a woman in the 1990s because she spilled hot coffee from McDonald's on herself. The coffee case led to debates over reforms to the legal system. What is happening at the border ought to lead to real action, beginning with Congress passing a resolution sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
What is happening is this: The border fence, which has proven effective in reducing illegal crossings, cannot extend along environmentally sensitive federal lands. In large sections of land near Mexico, border patrol agents are not allowed to drive their vehicles through sensitive areas. In one spot, the concern is that they might disrupt the natural environment for the endangered desert pupfish. That spot is part of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument west of Tucson.
The trouble is, the people smuggling drugs and humans across the border have no regard for the sensitivity of those lands. They are aware, however, that high-minded rules on the U.S. side provide them a great opportunity they are happy to exploit. They have no concerns about sensitive lands or environmental degradation.
Bishop likes to illustrate the problem by showing two maps. One shows how much of the land along the U.S.-Mexico border is publicly owned. This shows wide swaths of public land in Arizona, whereas nearly all of the border land in Texas is privately owned. The second map illustrates how many people were apprehended in various sectors of the United States for illegal entry. Arizona, it is clear, bears a huge and disproportionate burden. By comparison, Texas has but a trickle.
This, Bishop explains, is because border patrol agents may freely patrol along private land, but their movements on federal land are severely curtailed by laws and rules.
Bishop's resolution would exempt border patrol agents from these rules in areas along or near the border. Environmentalists, to no one's surprise, oppose this, but they can come up with no better argument than that such an exemption would set a precedent that could harm all federally protected land.
We don't dispute the need to protect certain sensitive areas from degradation. The American West contains many natural wonders that have taken nature eons to produce. But given the indiscriminate trampling by those who cross from the Mexican side, allowing patrols in these areas would seem to be better for the environment than the current set of rules.
The McDonald's jury award may be a bad one to illustrate this point. The plaintiff in that case did suffer injuries that required hospitalization and skin grafts, and a judge subsequently reduced the award. The rules about patrols on federal land, however, represent a real lapse of common sense that could only originate with a government bureaucracy.
The need to secure the border is the one aspect of the immigration debate that enjoys widespread agreement. The least the federal government can do is get it right.