Monday, Jan. 15, 2007 | The Democratic takeover of Congress may have implications for the construction of a long-disputed section of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Fence opponents, who sued unsuccessfully to stop a 3.5-mile section of fence from being built adjacent to the sensitive Tijuana Estuary, say the takeover gives them guarded optimism.

“We’re hopeful that the change in Congress means we can stop the last 3.5 miles of fencing,” said Cory Briggs, a San Diego-based environmental law attorney who led the suit.

But Briggs said it’s likely too soon to say exactly how the Democratic takeover might affect the fence project, which calls for nearly 2 million cubic yards of dirt to be lopped off border-area mesas to fill in the notorious canyon known as Smuggler’s Gulch. Federal officials say the earth-moving project would give Border Patrol agents a better vantage point from which to monitor the area.

The fence has both positives and negatives for the estuary. The existing fencing has helped reduce immigrant foot traffic and litter. But environmental groups have protested the remaining portion to be built, saying its construction and presence would exacerbate the problematic sediment that washes into the nearby Tijuana Estuary, a salt marsh home to five species of endangered birds and a migratory stop for another 370. The estuary already struggles to assimilate soil sent sweeping down from rainfalls on Tijuana’s overdeveloped hillside colonias.

The 3.5-mile local fence is discussed separately from a larger 700-mile fence that Congress approved in October. Many Democrats voted for the 700-mile fence, but did not fund it. Some question whether Democrats truly support the barrier or whether they voted for the fence simply to appear tough on border security when Election Day loomed.

“We need to see whether that was a case of political pandering,” Briggs said, “or whether they do believe in this cause.”

For now, local Democrats do not appear likely to challenge the waiver authority given to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in 2005. The Republican-controlled Congress gave Chertoff the power to waive any laws that stand in the way of fence construction. He used the power to brush off the environmental laws that had slowed the San Diego-Tijuana fence. Congress then approved $35 million to build it in late 2005.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, supports halting construction, but said he is not sure “the whole Congress would want to take it on.” He said he will investigate to see whether the issue can be reexamined, but noted that neither he nor fellow San Diego Democrat Rep. Susan Davis sit on the committees where the waiver was originally introduced.

“It makes it that much harder for us,” Filner said. “My sense right now is that people don’t want to revisit old things, no matter where we were on them.”

Davis opposes the 3.5-mile section of fence, spokesman Aaron Hunter said, but has no plans to introduce legislation to halt its construction.

Political observers say the fence is a delicate issue for the newly empowered Democrats. Taking on the San Diego-Tijuana fence could expose Democrats to criticism that they’re soft on border security, said Stephen Mumme, a Colorado State University political science professor.

“The new Democratic Congress does want to turn to other things,” Mumme said, “and they don’t want to raise this issue as a stand-alone issue in a way that invites a lot of criticism.”

Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, a fence proponent, noted that funding was already in place to build the controversial section of fence. And he said Hunter continues fighting to get the larger 700-mile fence funded. It would include a section of fence stretching 11 miles in each direction from the Tecate border crossing.

“While I cannot speculate on the plans of House Democrats to interfere with the effort,” Kasper said, “Congressman Hunter will continue working with his colleagues in Congress and the administration to extend the San Diego border fence across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, which is prescribed by federal law.”

The Republican presidential candidate recently requested that President Bush include fence funds in his 2008 budget. Bush, however, has previously questioned the fence’s efficacy. While proponents estimate it will cost $2.2 billion, a recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said it will cost $49 billion, based on the San Diego fence’s $9 million-per-mile estimated costs.

Hunter’s presidential run is not expected to attract national attention to the fence debate.

David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, said it is also too early to tell how much exposure Hunter will get on a national level, where he lacks the name recognition of more notorious Republican candidates.

“I don’t know that he’s been getting a whole lot of national play,” Shirk said. “These issues are going to come back in the campaign as the players crystallize, but thus far we haven’t seen much play on that issue at the national level.”

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