updated 6/23/2008 2:37:25 PM ET 2008-06-23T18:37:25

The Supreme Court turned down on Monday 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 (kilometers) of fencing in four states bordering Mexico.

The case rejected by the court involved a two-mile (3 kilometer) section of fence in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area near Naco, Arizona. The section has since been built.

As of June, 13, 331 miles (533 kilometers) of fencing has been constructed in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

"I am extremely disappointed in the court's decision," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat. "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 Democrats in the House of Representatives, including six other committee chairmen, filed a brief in support of the environmentalists' appeal.

Russ Knock, 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," Knock 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, terror attacks, which revived a heated immigration debate. Intelligence officials have said the holes along the southwest border could provide places for terrorists to enter the United States.

Congress considered but failed to pass comprehensive immigration changes in 2007.

Rep. Thompson said, "Without a comprehensive plan, this fence is just another quick fix."

Early this year, Chertoff waived more than 30 laws and regulations in an effort to finish building 670 miles (1,075 kilometers) of fence along the southwest border. Administration officials have said invoking the legal waivers, which Congress authorized in 1996 and 2005 laws, would cut through bureaucratic red tape and sidestep environmental laws that stand in the way of fence construction.

Environmentalists have said the fence puts in further danger already endangered species such as two types of wildcats, the ocelot and the jaguarundi. The fence would prevent them from swimming across the Rio Grande to mate.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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