In the battle on the U.S.-Mexico border, the fight against illegal immigration often loses out to environmental laws that have blocked construction of parts of the “virtual fence” and that threaten to create places where agents can’t easily track illegal immigrants.

Documents obtained by Rep. Rob Bishop and shared with The Washington Times show National Park Service staffers have tried to stop the U.S. Border Patrol from placing some towers associated with the virtual fence, known as the Secure Border Initiative or SBInet, on wilderness lands in parks along the border.

In a remarkably candid letter to members of Congress, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said her department could have to delay pursuits of illegal immigrants while waiting for horses to be brought in so agents don’t trample protected lands, and warns that illegal immigrants will increasingly make use of remote, protected areas to avoid being caught.

The documents also show the Interior Department has charged the Homeland Security Department $10 million over the past two years as a “mitigation” penalty to pay for damage to public lands that agencies say has been caused by Border Patrol agents chasing illegal immigrants. “I want this resolved so border security has the precedence down there. If wilderness designation gets in the way of a secure southern border, I want the designation changed,” said Mr. Bishop, Utah Republican, who requested the documents. “If it means you lose a couple of acres of wilderness, I don’t think God will blame us at the judgment bar for doing that.”

The conflict between the environment and border security has raged for the past decade as better enforcement in urban areas has pushed the flow of illegal immigrants into Arizona and straight into some of the nation’s most remote and fragile desert.

A major problem is wilderness – lands deemed so pristine that they should be maintained in that condition, free of man-made structures. Wilderness is governed under a 1964 law that imposed strict rules that tie Border Patrol agents’ hands, and there is a lot of that land along the border. According to the Congressional Research Service, California has 1.8 million acres of wilderness within 100 miles of the border, and Arizona has 2.5 million acres. New Mexico and Texas have smaller plots.

According to e-mails obtained by Mr. Bishop, Park Service officials at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and at the Denver office that oversees the park said they will not allow the Border Patrol to place electronic surveillance towers on parts of the park that are designated wilderness. In one 2008 e-mail, officials tell the Homeland Security Department to “pursue alternative tower locations.” In another 2008 memo, the superintendent of Organ Pipe says Park Service officials could reject towers even beyond wilderness areas if they deem the effects would spill over into wilderness.

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