WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday turned down a plea by environmental groups to rein in the Bush administration's power to waive laws and regulations to speed construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has used authority given to him by Congress in 2005 to ignore environmental and other laws and regulations to move forward with hundreds of miles of fencing in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.
The case rejected by the court involved a two-mile section of fence in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area near Naco, Ariz. The section has since been built.
As of June 13, 331 miles of fencing have been constructed in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
"I am extremely disappointed in the court's decision," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "This waiver will only prolong the department from addressing the real issue: their lack of a comprehensive border security plan."
Thompson chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. He and 13 other House Democrats -- including six other committee chairs -- filed a brief in support of the environmentalists' appeal.
Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said, "The American people expect this department to enforce the rule of law at the border. He added that the department is happy with the court's decision.
"As fence construction proceeds," Knocke said, "the department will continue to be a good steward of the environment, and consult with appropriate state, local, and tribal officials."
The concept of a border fence took on new life after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which revived the heated immigration debate. Intelligence officials have said the holes along the southwest border could provide places for terrorists to enter the country.
Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform when it had the chance in 2007.
"Without a comprehensive plan, this fence is just another quick fix," Thompson said.
Earlier this year, Chertoff waived more than 30 laws and regulations in an effort to finish building 670 miles of fence along the southwest border. Administration officials have said that invoking the legal waivers -- which Congress authorized in 1996 and 2005 laws -- will cut through bureaucratic red tape and sidestep environmental laws that currently stand in the way of fence construction.
Environmentalists have said the fence puts already endangered species such as two types of wild cats -- the ocelot and the jaguarundi -- in even more danger. The fence would prevent them from swimming across the Rio Grande to mate.