WASHINGTON — In an aggressive move to finish building 670 miles of border fence by the end of 2008, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that it would waive federal environmental laws to meet that goal.
The two waivers, allowing the department to slash through a thicket of environmental and cultural laws, would be the most expansive to date, encompassing land in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas that stretches about 470 miles.
The waivers are controversial with environmentalists and border communities, which see them as a federal imposition that could damage the land and disrupt wildlife.
But they are praised by conservatives who championed the 2006 Secure Fence Act, despite the reluctance of President Bush, who has said a broader approach is needed to deal with illegal immigration.
Republicans greeted the news with satisfaction.
"It's great. This is the priority area where most of the illegal activity is going on and where most of the deaths are occurring," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, R-Calif., chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus. "The quicker we can get the physical fence up, the sooner we'll avoid situations like the deaths of agents."
Wildlife groups reacted with dismay.
"It's dangerous, it's arrogant, it's going to have pronounced environmental impacts and it won't do a thing to address the problems of undocumented immigrants or address border security problems," said Brian Segee, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. "It's an incredibly simplistic and ineffective approach to complex problems."
The waivers are intended to clear the way for fencing to block pedestrians and cars, as well as extra cameras, towers and roads near the border. A special waiver was issued for a project in Hidalgo County, Texas, that would combine levees and a barrier.
Congress gave Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff the power to waive federal law in order to build the fence quickly. Since construction began, the department has faced opposition from local communities and has had to go to court against more than 50 property owners simply to survey land to determine whether it is suitable for a fence.
The department has built 309 miles of fence.
Some resistance comes from landowners who protest that the path of the fence might block their access to the Rio Grande; other opponents are concerned that it could increase the danger of extinction for endangered animals, such as the ocelot, a wild cat whose mating habits might be affected.
Chertoff has called the waivers a last resort, and department officials say the agency is committed to minimizing the effects on the environment and wildlife.