By Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
Though many in Washington have been hailing the recent progress made
on a sweeping immigration bill that would legalize the nation's
estimated 11million illegal immigrants, major disagreements over how
best to secure the nation's Southwest border with Mexico threaten to
derail the process.
Lawmakers in the nation's capital are largely
in agreement that the border must be secured, but the next battle will
be how to secure it - and over what time period. A failure to find
common ground on this critical issue could be enough to snuff out a
compromise, and with it the first comprehensive immigration legislation
in more than a quarter-century.
"I wouldn't vote for the
president's fast-track, and I wouldn't vote for the Senate's slower
track," said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, a member of a bipartisan group
of House members drafting a House immigration plan. "I think there's a
better way to do it."
That "fast track" is President Obama's argument that illegal
immigrants need a path to legal status now and should not wait until the
border is secured. In the Senate, a bipartisan group of senators - the
"Gang of Eight" - is trying to craft a provision in their bill that
could quantify and establish a level of border security that must be
reached before illegal immigrants can apply for legal residency and
Though many congressional Republicans understand
the political reality that the party needs to remake its image with
Latinos after the 2012 election, the pall from the last major
immigration law still hangs over today's negotiations. That landmark
bill, signed in 1986 by President Reagan, was sold as a solution to
illegal immigration and a way to secure the border. The citizenship part
happened; the border part did not. Millions of people from Mexico and
other parts of Latin America have continued to enter illegally through a
porous Southwest border, and others who entered the country legally
have continued overstaying their visas.
"The amnesty provisions
become law, they become final ... and the promises of enforcement don't
occur. I really believe that is a danger again," Sen. Jeff Sessions,
R-Ala., said in February on the Senate floor, echoing a fear among many
of the party faithful.
Republicans backed the 1986 bill that
granted amnesty to an estimated 3 million illegal immigrants. The
legislation was coupled with a vow to close illegal border crossings and
crack down on the hiring of these immigrants, neither of which
occurred. Now the GOP demands the border be secured for good before
agreeing to citizenship for those who are here.
Some senators were
excited to clear one roadblock to a deal this past weekend when the
AFL-CIO, the nation's largest coalition of labor unions, and the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce, agreed to support giving up to 200,000 visas a year
to foreigners for janitorial, hospitality and construction work. But
that agreement would go nowhere if a deal on security cannot be
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a
rising GOP star viewed as a possible 2016 presidential contender, was
the Gang of Eight member chosen to sell the immigration plan to several
conservative media outlets. During one appearance, radio host Rush
Limbaugh told Rubio that many listeners were worried the Senate group
wouldn't take border security seriously.
"If it doesn't, then I'll come back to you and say, 'Look, it didn't. We tried,'" Rubio responded during the January interview.
There is disagreement over how one shuts down a border stretching
1,969 miles across desert, mountain passes and the Rio Grande. Some
sheriffs along the border say the answer is more "boots on the ground,"
or border guards blocking those who try to make the trek despite the
In fact, the federal government boosted the number of Border
Patrol agents from just over 4,000 in 1993 to more than 21,000 in 2012.
That increase, as well as the economic recession that eliminated many
of the jobs luring so many illegal immigrants, led to sharp drops in
crossings. More than 1 million people a year crossed the border
illegally from 2004-06. By 2012, that number was 364,000.
Paul Babeu of Arizona's Pinal County says more boots is only part of the
answer. Babeu previously commanded a unit of Army National Guard troops
who patrolled the border and is now sheriff of an inland county that is
a major channel for human and drug smuggling. His solution to seal the
border: Add 6,000 border agents and National Guardsmen, build more
fencing and rigorously enforce existing laws. "You can get close to
that, yes," he said.
Others along the border say the strategy, not the number, of federal agents there needs to change.
Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition -
which includes the chief law enforcement officer of all Texas counties
within 25 miles of the border - said Border Patrol agents in his state
often work miles inland, focusing on high-volume immigration corridors
rather than patrolling the border itself. That leads many ranchers and
farmers who live along the border to say they live in "almost America."
not seeing Border Patrol on a regular basis," Reay said. "That's a
decision that's made in Washington. It's hard for us to tell another
agency, 'You're doing your job wrong.' But our sheriffs have to try to
fill that gap. And quite frankly, we don't have the manpower to do
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., both in the Gang of Eight, toured the Arizona border last
Wednesday and watched as a woman scaled an 18-foot-high border fence in
Nogales. Both said Border Patrol needs more technological assistance to
fill in gaps.
Though agents already use cameras, sensors and
drones to monitor people crossing the border, those technologies need to
be augmented, Schumer said.
"We have adequate manpower, but not adequate technology," he said after the tour.
BIGGER THAN THE BORDER
Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff said Congress also needs
to figure out how to identify "visa overstays" - about 40% of illegal
immigrants entered the country legally with a visa but stayed after it
expired. At least two of the 9/11 hijackers were in the U.S. after
overstaying tourist visas. Chertoff also said little has been done to
monitor people who enter illegally by water.
He said focusing
solely on the Southwest border "would be like if you have three doors to
your house and you only lock one. This popular image of people running
across the deserts or the mountains only accounts for a percentage of
the total issue," he said.
Others say the problem of illegal crossings will fade away when the country reforms its legal immigration system.
El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar says the U.S. government has
approached the problem of illegal immigration in a "completely backward
way." She said most people illegally enter the country to work, so
reforming the nation's visa system to allow more foreign workers in
temporarily would slow illegal crossings. That would then allow the
government to concentrate law enforcement efforts on illegal immigrants
who might pose a true threat to national security.
Though that might sound simple enough, just defining what security means has become a point of contention in negotiations.
years, the Department of Homeland Security relied on a measurement
called "operational control" of the border, which Congress defined in
2006 as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States,
including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of
terrorism, narcotics and contraband." In 2007, Border Patrol defined
operational control as "the ability to detect, respond and interdict
border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority for threat
potential or other national security objectives."
In 2010, Border
Patrol estimated it had established operational control of 873 miles of
the border, or 44%. The next year, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said
the agency was scrapping operational control as a metric and would
develop a new measurement for border security: the "border condition
Now, DHS says that metric may not be a viable way to truly explain how secure the border is.
'A DIFFICULT LIFT'
a March 20 House committee hearing, DHS said its agents were using a
wide variety of metrics - including apprehensions of people along the
border, economic measurements and hotel vacancy rates on the Mexican
side of the border - to help them figure out where they need to
concentrate efforts. But department officials cautioned it might not be
possible to use such a metric as a final grade on overall border
That reaction upset House Republicans who had been waiting for years for the new measurement.
have a moment in time here," said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., chair
of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on Border and Maritime
Security. "If we do not as a nation have a high degree of confidence
that we are securing our border, or are on the path to measuring border
security in a way that we feel confident in, I think this whole
comprehensive immigration reform is going to be a very difficult lift."