National Park Service Deputy Director David Vela, who has served as acting director for the National Park Service since Oct. 1, told lawmakers during a U.S. House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands subcommittee hearing that he did not know much about his own agency’s deployment of park law enforcement rangers to assist the Border Patrol with illegal immigration.
Vela was responding to U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland, D-NM, chair of the subcommittee, who questioned the chief of the parks system about a story published Nov. 23 by the USA TODAY Network that exclusively revealed the extent of the NPS border deployments. The story reported that the Trump administration ordered rangers from national parks around the country, from as far as Alaska and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as from the Rocky Mountain and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, to travel to the U.S.-Mexican border to fight illegal immigration and drug traffickers.
The law enforcement operation, known as the Department of Interior-Border Support Surge, began as a pilot program in May 2018. A second surge began in October, amid record numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.
Initially, former Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke announced 22 park rangers and other staffers would be sent to the border in May 2018.
But under the Interior Department's new director, David Bernhardt, officials refused to discuss the operational details behind the latest surge, including the exact number of rangers, U.S. park police and other Department of Interior law enforcement officers used to bolster border security.
However, Robert “Bob” Bushell, assistant chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, confirmed to the USA TODAY Network that the surge was underway, calling it “an awesome partnership.” Other parks officials told the USA TODAY Network the park rangers would be needed at the border through September 2020.
During the subcommittee meeting, Haaland said that nearly every time the National Park Service has provided testimony before U.S. House lawmakers, the agency has focused on its deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion, noting that it is NPS’s main funding priority.
“How does sending NPS staff to the border, paying for them to remain there and temporarily diverting them from their role as resource protection fit in with that prioritization of the funding backlog?” she asked Vela, who served as a deputy director for the NPS for six months before being given “acting authority” as director.
Vela did not seem to know, or did not give specifics on the border surge, answering: “Clearly the president has some very specific interests and objectives on the border that we are doing our best to satisfy current day.”
Vela is a nearly 30-year veteran of the park service, who worked as a law enforcement ranger, as well as a park superintendent, including at two border parks in Texas.
“This is a little more defined, more focused, but in my history in the NPS, this is something we have done from time to time for certain mission and certain causes,” he said.
Haaland persisted in asking how many park rangers had been deployed to the border since the pilot program began in May 2018, saying that it “means significantly more staff being diverted out of our parks and to the border.”
The USA TODAY Network reported exclusively this year using data obtained via the federal Freedom of Information Act that the nation's ranger corps and park staff dropped by 20% over the past decade. The staffing reductions come as the 419 national parks see historically high visitation numbers, totaling 320 million in 2018.
Vela said he had only been on the job three months and hadn’t “been briefed on the current call as to what is being required and requested. It is a briefing I will be receiving soon,” he said.
“Based upon the mission, we will determine the number of assets that we will need. These deployments are short term, for a specific period of time. I think that we’re learning about who we need to deploy, how long, the skill sets that are required. I hope to have answers to those questions myself in the near future based upon the mission and the purpose for the call out,” Vela said.'
Jeff Ruch, Pacific Director for the federal agency watchdog group PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), called the NPS acting director's answers "glib but not substantive."
Rangers who are deployed to the border all have federal law enforcement training but not necessarily training in immigration enforcement, he said.
"As we understand these border deployments, the overall mission is open-ended, so it’s not like they’re there to accomplish a specific mission, they’re just responding to a quota given by non-park professionals, coming to the Department of the Interior from the White House for a certain number of law enforcement bodies," Ruch said.
"There's no measure of what they’re trying to accomplish, nor any indication that it will end any time soon."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump sent park rangers to US border, parks director says he has no details