Parents-to-be from Haiti stand at a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border wall after having traveled from South America to the United States on Dec. 10, 2021 in Yuma, Arizona. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The effects of immigration and crime on national parks took center stage Wednesday during a U.S. House hearing led by Republicans.
Members of the U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations discussed trash accumulation, the destruction of wildlife habitats and the illegal marijuana growing operations tied to cartels as environmental consequences of migrants coming onto park lands. Republican members also expressed concerns about the placement of asylum seekers’ camps on national park land.
House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said it’s part of a humanitarian crisis.
Michael Reynolds, the National Park Service deputy director, and Chris French, the National Forest System deputy chief at the U.S. Forest Service, testified about how their agencies collaborate with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
French said that while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is primarily responsible for protecting the nation’s borders, the U.S. Forest Service’s “stewardship and law enforcement responsibilities are vital to assisting the border patrol with effectively defending national security, responding to terrorist threats, safeguarding human life and stopping the degradation of natural and cultural resources on National Forest System lands.”
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The three other testifying witnesses were Julie Axelrod, the director of litigation at the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit that seeks to limit immigration into the U.S.; John Nores, a retired lieutenant with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and former Marijuana Enforcement Team leader at the agency; and Verlon M. Jose, the chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Sells, Arizona.
Representatives and witnesses frequently referenced migrant camps at the National Park Service Gateway National Recreation Area’s Floyd Bennett Field, an airfield in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
The city entered lease agreements in September with the National Park Service to create emergency housing for migrants at the airfield. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the city has been forced to look for new options with thousands of asylum seekers arriving in the city and no federal plan for their housing.
The House Natural Resources Committee released a statement in September, in which Chairman Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican, condemned the placement of migrant camps in national parks.
“The (Biden) administration has now set a terrible precedent to use our public lands across the country to house migrants,” Westerman said at the hearing.
Westerman asked Reynolds if he could “assure concerned Americans that their national parks will not be used to house any additional migrants.”
“I can assure you that we will review everything for legal basis, and conservation protection is job one,” Reynolds said.
Westerman said the building of migrant shelters on National Park Service land is not his “vision” for how the parks should be used, nor does he think many Americans consider that to be the purpose of these parks.
“These areas face challenges that unfortunately are becoming increasingly familiar across the United States, from piles of trash to concerns about human trafficking,” Westerman said.
Humanitarian crisis and local intervention
CBP has reported more than 6 million encounters at the U.S. southern border since 2020.
“The unprecedented number of refugees and asylum seekers that are coming to the border is a reality,” Grijalva said. “It is a humanitarian crisis and needs to be dealt with.”
Grijalva said it is important to have a supplemental spending bill that can provide adequate resources “for the management of that crisis.”
“It is not right, nor is it proper, that local communities bear the burden financially and otherwise, for the processing, shelter and transition of those seeking refuge and asylum in this country,” Grijalva said.
Westerman said 35% of the land along the U.S. Southern border is Native American land.
Jose, whose tribal nation shares a 62-mile border with Mexico, said the Tohono O’odham Nation spends about $3 million each year “to help meet the U.S. border security responsibilities.”
The Tohono O’odham Nation police force spends more than a third of its time working on border issues, “including the investigation of immigrant deaths, illegal drug seizures and human smuggling,” Jose said.
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The types of border security measures implemented on the Nation’s lands include:
- A High Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force.
- An Immigration and Customs Enforcement office and Customs and Border Protection forward operating bases.
- An ICE tactical patrol unit called the “Shadow Wolves.”
- Vehicle barriers “that run the entire length of the Tribal border and a patrol road that parallels it.”
- A CBP checkpoint on the Nation’s major highway.
- A surveillance tower system.
“The Nation shares the federal government’s concerns about border security, and we believe that the measures we have taken to assist CBP and our own law enforcement efforts are necessary to protect the Nation’s members specifically and the United States generally,” Jose said.
Trash and drugs on federal lands
Republican members said they were concerned about trash accumulation at the border.
Rep. Juan Ciscomani, an Arizona Republican who is not a member of the committee, joined the hearing to speak with the witnesses. Ciscomani’s congressional district sits along the U.S.-Mexico border and contains areas of federal land.
Ciscomani asked French for statistics on the amount of trash picked up on national forest lands along the Southern U.S. border.
French said he was not “not entirely sure,” and that his agency did not have specific data on the amount of trash picked up this year compared to previous years. He said about 40,000 individuals were apprehended on National Forest System lands so far this year.
“What I can tell you is that this has been a continuous problem,” French said.
Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, asked French about the illegal marijuana growing sites operating on national forests. The Republican committee members said these growing sites are linked to international cartels.
French said that in the previous five years, the USFS has remediated 336 grow sites, and removed about 350 miles of irrigation pipes. About 300,000 pounds of trash have been removed from the grow sites. French said that toxic and banned substances have also been removed.
Nores, who co-founded the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marijuana Enforcement Team, said in the team’s first five years, it “destroyed 3 million toxically tainted cannabis plants” and about 29 tons of “toxically tainted processed cannabis for sale and distribution.”
Nores said the team also made nearly 1,000 felony arrests.
Nores raised concerns about black market cannabis operations “not only on public lands, but on rural private land as well.”
Tohono O’odham Nation border wall concerns
Jose said his community has concerns about the construction of the border wall, which he said is ineffective in the desert Southwest.
He said the border wall has damaged sacred tribal areas, including the destruction of human burial sites, and has affected cultural practices.
“The Nation wholeheartedly agrees with GAO that the federal agencies must do a better job coordinating with each other and with the Nation on a strategy to mitigate the harm that a wall has caused,” Jose said.
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