Senators in both parties questioned the effectiveness of U.S. border-security efforts as lawmakers begin debating a measure to revise immigration laws and create a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“We do not have a secure border today,” said Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The panel held a hearing today on legislation proposed by a bipartisan group of eight senators.
Coburn said he was concerned the measure would stretch the capabilities of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies “to actually carry it out.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled on May 9 to begin debating the immigration bill, which seeks to balance a path to citizenship sought by Democrats with enough border security improvements to satisfy some Republicans. Concern about border security has heightened following the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. The two suspects legally entered the U.S. from Kyrgyzstan a decade ago.
The Senate measure requires specific benchmarks to be met in improving border security before undocumented immigrants can begin qualifying for eventual citizenship. The apprehension rate of illegal crossings must reach 90 percent in high-risk sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republican and Democratic senators told Obama administration officials at today’s hearing that passage of the legislation depends on a credible way to measure border-security improvements.
North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat elected last November when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried her state, said the immigration legislation won’t be successful unless the public perceives there “will be a sea change” in border-security enforcement.
Voters want “an absolute commitment to making sure this happens,” she told a panel of Homeland Security Department officials.
Attempted border crossings are down since 2000, when 1.68 million people were apprehended on the Southwest border, according to U.S Customs and Border Protection. Last year, the number was about 357,000.
The effectiveness of border security last year, according to a Government Accountability Office report based on Border Patrol data, has ranged from 87 percent in the Tucson, Arizona, sector to 71 percent along the Rio Grande River.
Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher, under questioning by Coburn, acknowledged the rates don’t take into account the number of illegal crossings that agents don’t detect.
That number “is going to have to be determined in finite terms,” Coburn said. “If in fact the American people can’t trust that the border is controlled, you are not going to be able to pass this bill.”
Obama administration officials said the comprehensive legislation is the best way to reduce illegal border crossings. The measure includes tougher sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers as well as a reallocation of visas.
“You need to address the magnet that attracts people for illegal work” by enforcing employer sanctions, said Assistant Homeland Security Secretary David Heyman. The bill contains “a number of different tools and devices” also including improved technology along the border, he said.
“Put all of that together, our ability to have a better control of the border will also improve,” Heyman said.
In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said last month that he would proceed with a series of individual bills instead of a comprehensive immigration measure.
Representative Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican, said today he agreed with that approach.
“The bigger, the more complicated, the more stuff in the bill, it’s easier for somebody to say, ‘I am a no,’” Roskam said at the Peterson Foundation fiscal summit in Washington. “If you want to get to yes, break this down.”
Coburn also said it was a “mistake” for the Homeland Security panel not to assert jurisdiction over drafting the bill’s border-security provisions “because so much is going to impact the agencies” under the committee’s oversight.
The panel’s chairman, Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, said the Senate would have to vote unanimously to refer the immigration measure’s border-security provisions to the Homeland Security panel. Carper said he would explore that option.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said he plans to bring the measure to the floor in June after the Judiciary committee completes work on it.
Carper said while security has been improved along the Southern border with Mexico, the Homeland Security Department must “do a much better job of measuring its performance at our borders.”
Carper said he was concerned that the Border Patrol wasn’t making full use of advanced radar systems on airplanes to detect illegal activity along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Aircraft without an advanced sensor on board to help detect illegal activity on the ground is of very little value,” Carper said.
One of three helicopters used near McAllen, Texas, is equipped with the sensors, and just one of 17 single-engine C-206 airplanes has been fitted with an advanced infrared camera system, he said.
Carper said the border agencies must make better use of intelligence and work more closely with Mexican authorities to stem the number of undocumented immigrants from Central America.
“We squeeze the balloon in northern Mexico” by cracking down on drug cartels and it “pops out in places like El Salvador,” Honduras and Guatemala where people are “coming because of murder and mayhem in their countries,” he said.
Anne L. Richards, the Homeland Security Department’s assistant inspector general for audits, blamed poor planning for the failure to add new technology when buying equipment. She agreed with criticism by Republican lawmakers that border-security agencies don’t have adequate data to measure their performance.
“Our challenges are related to inadequate strategic planning, a dearth of performance measures and data and information that cannot be relied on to make sound decisions,” she said in prepared testimony.