A Fox News report has sent shockwaves across the blogosphere – declaring "Obama gives major strip of AZ to Mexico," but law-enforcement officials in the area are saying the state still belongs to the U.S. and is not closed off to Americans.
On the June 15 show, "America Live" guest host Shannon Bream said, "A massive stretch of Arizona now off limits to Americans. Critics say the administration is, in effect, giving a major strip of the Southwest back to Mexico. U.S. Fish and Wildlife have closed a portion of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge all along the border, warning visitors to beware of heavily armed drug smugglers and traffickers."
The following is a video recording of the show posted on YouTube:
Then Bream introduces Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, saying, "Sheriff, this is a family show, so I'm going to put it like this: What the heck is going on down there?"
Fox News simultaneously showed this picture of illegal immigrants climbing a border fence along with Babeu's photo:
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Babeu explains, "It's literally out of control, and violence has increased just in the last four months. All of our police chiefs and Pinal County, we stood with Sen. McCain and literally demanded support for 3,000 soldiers to be deployed to Arizona to get this under control and finally secure our border with Mexico."
Refuge strip closed during Bush administration
However, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jose Viramontes told WND that the Obama administration did not close that section of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge on the border. That closure happened during the George W. Bush administration in 2006 and only involved a strip of land along the border that extended about 1 mile into Arizona.
Red portion of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (along U.S.-Mexico border) closed in 2006.
"In 2006, we closed 3,500 acres to public access on Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge due to public-safety concerns," he said. "At that time, there was an escalation of violence, and we also had contractors down there who were working on building vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing in compliance with the Secure Fence Act."
Viramontes said in 2006 "there was a high volume of drug trafficking and human trafficking going on right there at the border, right before a lot of the border-security enforcement measures were put in place."
He added, "Since that point, we have not closed any further lands, nor have we reopened that section of land. We still don't feel that it's safe enough at this point, though violence has been decreasing – in large part due to our coordination with Border Patrol to improve access and to provide access to build a pedestrian barrier and vehicle barriers. Violence is on the decline, but not to the point that we've reopened the area yet."
In the broadcast, Bream also fails to make a clear distinction between Pinal County and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge on the border. Instead, she begins immediately interviewing Pinal County Sheriff Babeu about the border closure – an issue hours away from his jurisdiction.
"Pinal County is 80-120 miles north of the refuge," Viramontes said. "The refuge is not in Pinal County."
Arizona lands not closed to the public
Bream told Pinal County Sheriff Babeu she received an e-mail stating that the government has been erecting signs that said "Don't go past this point," "Stay away" and "This is not safe."
But Viramontes explained that Bream was talking about signs erected by the Bureau of Land Management in the Sonoran Desert.
"One of our sister agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, recently erected signs in Pinal County that warn visitors on their public lands just to be aware that things may be out in the desert," he said. "Most of the signs you see on the news programs are that sign. That recently happened within the past week or two."
WND called the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management to inquire about the recently posted signs.
Dennis Godfrey, spokesman for the bureau in Arizona, explained, "We have posted some advisory signs, but we have not closed any areas."
He said, "The signs went up with the recommendation of our law-enforcement personnel because of increased illegal activity in portions of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, which is a very large area. It's actually divided by Interstate 8 that runs through there. It's the southern portion of that where we've put up signs advising people of the danger and recommending that they use public land north of the interstate."
Contrary to the report, the bureau signs do not state, "Don't go past this point" and "This is not
safe." Rather than "Stay away," as Bream claimed, one portion of a sign reads: "Stay Away From Trash, Clothing, Backpacks, and Abandoned Vehicles".
Godfrey said he's been in contact with Fox News and hopes the organization will correct its report. WND's messages left with "America Live" and the Fox Nation were not returned at the time of this report.
The bureau's chief law-enforcement officer, Tom Lister, told WND the agency has had the following permanent signs up since last year:
Bureau of Land Management posted
this permanent sign as an advisory to travelers in 2009.
However, the bureau has recently posted the following temporary sign with a stronger advisory:
Bureau of Land Management posted this "temporary" sign in June as an advisory to travelers.
"With the activity we've seen – an increased level in both human and drug smuggling along with the shootings and homicides – the local district felt like we should have some stronger signs in there until we see a change in the activity level," Lister said. "So these temporary signs were put up, and they're a brighter sign that gets people's attention."
He said law-enforcement officers have been seeing smugglers traveling at high speed late at night without headlights. Also, he said the bureau is advising American travelers to refrain from approaching material that appears to be trash because it could be a supply cache for smugglers.
"Our advisory is that you visit the lands north of the interstate rather than south of the interstate," he said.
However, Lister said the U.S. government has not given the land to Mexico, the area is not closed to Americans and the bureau is not prohibiting U.S. citizens from traveling there.
"We have people who have gone down there for years and know what's going on," he said. "They're comfortable with their ability to stay out of trouble. We're not going to close the area to the American public, but we felt like that we owe the users there – especially people who aren't as familiar with the area – a stronger advisory."
All of the officials whom WND interviewed agreed that the current levels of violence and human and drug trafficking are issues of great concern that must be addressed.
Increase in illegal activity in Pinal County
Asked why there has been an uptick in illegal activity in the Pinal County area, Lister said, "With the things that are going on in Mexico – the various drug cartels and fighting over smuggling routes – my thought is that this is probably one of the areas that they haven't had a lot of fighting over. I don't know. For whatever reason, we've definitely seen that increase."
He noted that officers are seeing an increase in evidence of weapons in the area as well.
"We've recently had reports of 11 or 12 shootings," Lister said. "Most of them, when you track it back, most of the individuals and victims involved appear to be involved in trafficking in one way or another."
But Lister said one American visitor in the area had shots fired at him.
"He had tried to follow the vehicle to get a better description of it to try and call," he explained. "He engaged them. We're saying, if you see something out there, avoid it. Get out of the area and call 911."
In the meantime, Lister said his office has been working with Border Patrol, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, sheriff's offices, local Indian reservations, local police departments and other agencies to stop the illegal traffic and violence.
"Besides our normal day-to-day work that each of us do out there, we also do coordinated operations out there targeting the drugs and human trafficking," he said. "It's been pretty successful."
However, Babeu warned that the problem is out of control, and he said posting advisory signs is not the answer.
"We're talking three counties deep into the heart of Arizona where the answer from our government is to put up signs warning our citizens in our sovereign nation to beware of foreigners who are there who are heavily armed," he told Bream. "We have squad-size paramilitary elements that are working deep in our country that are escorting drugs and human illegals."
He added, "Quite frankly, I'm telling you as a sheriff that I don't control that part of the county. My county is larger than the state of Connecticut. We need support from the federal government. It's their job to secure the border, and they haven't done it. In fact, President Obama suspended the construction of the fence. It's just simply outrageous."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, ranking Republican on the House Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee, told Fox News today that federal laws protecting the environment are forcing Border Patrol agents to patrol parklands on horseback – making the areas prime locations for drug gangs, human smugglers and illegal aliens.
"They're not allowing the Border Patrol to do the job that they know they need to do," he said.
As for the advisory signs in Pinal County, Lister said, "We're looking at this as a temporary thing. We're not trying to close this to the public. We're hoping we'll see the effects of our targeted enforcement efforts out there, and hopefully be able to take the signs down completely and just go back to the caution signs that we've had up there."
Two soldiers from the Tennessee National Guard on duty along U.S.-Mexico border, near Yuma, Ariz.
Obama administration efforts fall short
As WND reported, the Obama administration announced its decision to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S. southern border to counter cross-border drug and weapons trafficking. However, many lawmakers have warned that 1,200 will not be enough.
Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain said Obama's decision to send an "insufficient number of National Guard troops" is a "weak start and does not demonstrate an understanding of the current situation in the region."
"Our children are living in fear, but the Obama White House is living in denial," said Sen. John Cornyn. "The president must make border security a priority, not an afterthought or an empty talking point."
However, the State Department announced the National Guard troops will not be used to stop illegal immigration.
As WND recently reported, thousands of illegal aliens apprehended along the 2,000-mile border stretching through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas aren't even from Mexico. Many are citizens of countries that are known sponsors of terrorism, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Iran.
Former Rep. Tom Tancredo told WND he doesn't believe Obama's decision to send troops is intended to improve the situation.
"I don't think anybody thinks this matters," he said. "Obama certainly doesn't."
He added, "The desire is not to fix the problem. The desire is to have amnesty. All of this is in anticipation of amnesty."