Panel questions DHS chief's groundwork for border fence
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff ran into a wall of skepticism Thursday from House appropriators over his department's border security efforts, especially a recent decision to waive a myriad of federal laws to allow construction of 470 miles of fencing.
It was Chertoff's first appearance before appropriators since announcing last week that the department would waive 37 environmental and land management requirements to build pedestrian and vehicle fencing from California to Texas.
Chertoff noted at the time that Congress gave his department the ability to waive the laws.
"This is a major exercise of the waiver authority which goes beyond, I think, what many of us anticipated," House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price, D-N.C., said to Chertoff Thursday.
Price said Congress also instructed the department to conduct consultations with local officials and residents before constructing fencing and gave the department flexibility to not build fencing. Price said that the department needs to complete only about 360 miles of fencing to meet its goal for the year, and questioned why laws were being waived to build 470 miles.
Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, said he was not against fencing but does not believe the department has held adequate consultations with residents in his district.
"Because you have the right that doesn't mean you ought to have taken that right," he said. "I think in all honesty in some cases you've been misinformed by your own people."
None of the appropriators discussed withholding funds from the department, however.
Chertoff defended his decision to waive the laws. He said it would be "unquestionably impossible" to construct new fencing if the department had to meet all requirements set by those laws.
He acknowledged that 470 miles of fencing is more than the department plans to construct, saying the additional fencing represents "contingency miles" or might be used to turn existing vehicle barriers into pedestrian fencing. He also defended the consultations his department has been having with local property owners. The department has altered fencing plans based on meetings and "reasonable" recommendations from local officials and residents, Chertoff said.
House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, questioned other border security efforts within the department. Rogers said he was alarmed at the level of violence occurring along the border, especially between drug runners and the Border Patrol. Chertoff said the increased violence is the result of the department's efforts to crack down on organized crime syndicates and drug smugglers.
Culberson said the department is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration.
"I have to tell you it's not working. The border is not secure," he said. Chertoff declared his commitment to border security, saying one of the main reasons comprehensive immigration legislation failed in Congress last year was because the U.S. public did not believe his department was serious about controlling the border.
"If it's the last thing I do in this job, I'm going to . . . live up to the commitments we've made to the American people," he said.