TUCSON (CN) – As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff visited an Arizona law school on Friday, lawyers and law students protested the wall his agency has built between the U.S. and Mexico, declaring it an environmental and humanitarian disaster. They pinned hopes for change on the incoming administration of Barack Obama.
Organized by the Environmental Law Society and the National Lawyers’ Guild, the protest coincided with Chertoff’s visit to the University of Arizona College of Law.
Protestors noted that Chertoff has invoked a statutory provision waiving more than 30 federal laws to clear the way for the wall. While current legislation addressing the waiver flounders in subcommittee, groups are hopeful that the upcoming administration may provide new direction in the struggle to balance humanitarian and environmental concerns with national security.
The REAL ID Act, which authorized the waiver, was tacked onto a 2005 appropriations bill funding Tsunami relief and anti-terrorism efforts. The following year, the Secure Fence Act authorized construction of more than 700 miles of double fencing along the Mexican border.
Many expressed hope that a new presidential administration and Congress could change the path of what they call a failed border policy.
President-elect Barack Obama has signaled a willingness to reconsider current policies on immigration and security. In Obama’s famous Berlin speech, he said “the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us.”
Yet Obama continues to promote national safety. At a February debate in Austin, Texas, he stated that “we need stronger border security.” When asked at the same debate whether he considered his vote in favor of the Secure Fence Act to be a mistake, Obama responded that “the key is to consult with local communities … the Bush administration is not real good at listening. I will reverse that policy.”
Matt Clark, Southwest Representative of the national group Defenders of Wildlife, responded by saying “the hope is that the new administration will indeed be better at listening to the concerns and opposition to this ineffective and destructive border strategy.”
Clark says that diverse constituencies, from agricultural to environmental and religious interests, have galvanized in opposition to the wall. The Border Wall Summit, of which Defenders of Wildlife is a co-sponsor, will be held in El Paso early this December and plans to focus on legislative strategy and building momentum for opposition to the security fence.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva worked with environmental groups to introduce the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act last year, intended to remove the waiver. The proposed legislation currently rests in House subcommittee.
Grijalva Press Secretary Natalie Luna said that “The Act is not going anywhere this session.” With 49 sponsors, the legislation is “something the Congressman does plan to reintroduce,” Luna said. “We’re hopeful that some version of this is passed within the first two years of Obama’s administration.”
But the question remains whether legislation can move fast enough to affect the border wall, which has is already more than halfway built, before it is completed.
Luna said that based on Grijalva’s discussions with Obama, the President-elect is “open to sitting down and talking reform. I think he will consult with local communities. But eventually, we’re probably going to have to meet in the center.”
“There needs to be a real dialogue on immigration, a discussion of actual facts and issues. I think if they see people making some rational decisions, coming together in a logical way, the national mood can change.”