Czar Chertoff

October 26, 2007

If you were under the impression that the "decider" in this country is the president, the Congress, the courts, the voters or some combination thereof, you would be wrong.

Turns out, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff calls the shots, or so he claimed by unilaterally waiving federal conservation laws and a federal District Court order because they were impeding construction of a fence along the Mexican border.

Hard to say which is worse: that an appointed official would make such an outrageous power grab or that he did it to advance a monumentally foolish and wasteful project that cries out to be stopped.

Either way, it's up to Congress to persuade Mr. Chertoff to stand down or enact legislation that forces him to.

Congress created this mess last year by approving construction of 700 miles of fencing along the 2,100-mile border with Mexico because the Republican leaders then in charge couldn't agree on a more practical approach to immigration control.

The fence proposal was modeled on a barrier at so-called Smugglers Gulch in San Diego that has failed to stem the tide of illegal immigrants or drug traffickers and is constantly in need of repair from those who hack through it or tunnel beneath it.

Besides being ineffective, the fencing is destructive, threatening to divide communities and cultures in border towns and to destroy the fragile ecology of supposedly protected federal wildlife areas.

Environmental groups sued to stop construction of seven miles of fence through the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area near Naco, Ariz., and won a delay from a U.S. District Court judge who ruled the government had not fully considered the potential environmental impact.

But Czar Chertoff simply waived environmental requirements under authority granted him by the 2005 Real ID Act, which was intended to speed work on the San Diego barrier, and ordered the construction in San Pedro to resume. Earlier this year, he invoked the same authority to build 14 miles of fencing through an Air Force range, where military leaders said a vehicle barrier would be more appropriate.

Mr. Chertoff's claims that homeland security trumps environmental preservation suggest he's lost his grip on what the homeland is. Purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain or a tangle of cement and barbed wire? What's more, such a question should not be up to one political appointee responding to demagoguery and fear-mongering.

Congress should quickly halt this power grab - and scrap the fence - before any more damage is done.

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