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Tuesday, March 29, 2005 | The chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee and three Southern California congressmen hope to draw attention to San Diego’s border with Mexico on Tuesday by showing the public a section of the boundary where they believe a bulked-up border fence’s security benefits would outweigh its environmental risks.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., will use the Tijuana River Valley photo-op to rally support for an immigration bill he authored that would complete construction on a 14-mile fence after the California Coastal Commission – the state board appointed to monitor development along the coast – halted the project last February, citing environmental concerns.

The House members are hoping the public will see the purported holes in the nation’s security in the comfort of their living room after leading camera crews down to the project’s site this afternoon.

Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, Duke Cunningham, R-Escondido, and Ed Royce, R-Orange County, are co-sponsors of the bill and will hold the press conference with Sensenbrenner.

Their bill, known as the Real ID Act, was inserted into a spending bill the House passed last month. If approved by the Senate and signed by President Bush, construction on the project’s remaining 3.5 miles will override any environmental regulations that would otherwise stand in the way of its completion.

The project’s opponents, like Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, interpret the bill’s wording to sound like construction would not just override environmental regulations, but any regulations.

In addition to the Real ID Act’s provisions that bar illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses and toughening standards for claiming political asylum, the bill will also “ensure expeditious construction of the San Diego border fence,” according to a Library of Congress summary.

“Who should be in charge of counterterrorism policy? Should it be the California Coastal Commission or should it be the Department of Homeland Security?” Royce said on the House floor while the bill was debated.

By adding two larger walls, stadium lights, cameras and motion sensors to the existing rusty fence that runs along the border, the congressmen said the triple fence system will deter illegal border crossers, including foreign terrorists. Triple-fence supporters also cite security around the county’s military installations as a priority.

Besides Cunningham and Hunter, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, voted for the Real ID Act. Filner and Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, voted against it.

The county Board of Supervisors followed suit March 1 when they drew up a resolution supporting the completion of a fortified border. Supervisor Greg Cox, District 1, whose South Bay section of the county adjoins the border, was denied when he tried to insert language asking that environmental precautions be considered during construction. Instead, the board adopted a resolution worded by Supervisor Diane Jacobs, District 2, who said that adhering to environmental laws could impede national security.

The panel approved Jacobs’ resolution 4-to-1 with Cox dissenting.

The Republican congressmen, some of whom have publicly bucked Bush’s more lenient immigration policies in the past, are looking to grab the public eye tomorrow at Smuggler’s Gulch, a canyon near the project site with a name the lawmakers hope will invoke a sense of peril when viewers watch the press event on CNN.

The proposal, passed by Congress in 1996, was planned to stretch from Otay Mountain to the Pacific Ocean, but has ignited backlash from environmentalists who view the 15-foot-tall fences as destructive to the surrounding Tijuana Estuary.

Environmentalists opposing the triple fence said the estuary’s water quality would suffer due to erosion and because Smuggler’s Gulch, a canyon that drains into the estuary, would have to be filled. Opponents have also argued that the fence’s construction will threaten the habitats of rare animal and plant species and block off access to a friendship monument in Border Field State Park.

Davis, whose congressional district includes the site, estimated that more than 2 million tons of dirt, stacked 165 feet high, would be dumped into the Smuggler’s Gulch.

Hunter and Sensenbrenner made headlines last year when both were blamed by some, praised by others, for holding up legislation to overhaul the nation’s intelligence community while House and Senate versions of the bill were being reconciled in conference. Hunter and Sensenbrenner rallied GOP lawmakers against the Bush-backed bill because the compromised version wasn’t going to prohibit illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses while shifting control of military intelligence from the Pentagon to a national intelligence director. The bill eventually passed in December.

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