Today, reconvened during the August recess for a special session, the Senate passed a fully-funded $600 million bill for border security, providing funds for 1,500 new enforcement agents and additional unmanned drones along the border.
[Congress1] The bill has a convoluted history. It originally passed the Senate last Thursday, but was restarted in the House on Tuesday due to a jurisdictional problem with its funding. (The bill is funded through increases to visa fees for companies that provide temporary skilled worker visas for large numbers of workers.) Only two senators, Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), were present today for a brief session to conduct the vote.
“This bill is enormously important because it will clear the path for the bipartisan discussions we need to have about our immigration system,” Schumer said at the vote today.
But immigrants rights advocates aren’t happy with the Democrats for pushing more harsh enforcement over comprehensive reform — and proponents of tougher immigration policies said the bill won’t convince them Obama and the Democrats are serious about securing the border.
“You can make the argument that it can reinforce the Obama administration efforts to disentangle the border issues from the immigration issues,” Mary Giovagnoli, director of the pro-reform Immigration Policy Center, told TWI. “But that’s probably not how it’s going to play out.”
The bill will have tangible effects on border enforcement. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last week the bill will provide “important, permanent resources” to improving border security. Of the $600 million, $175.9 million will go to hiring additional border patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border. Another $32 million will go to purchasing and deploying unmanned drones along the border. The bill also includes funds specifically directed at maintaining safety, with $30 million for law enforcement activities targeted at reducing the threat of violence in border states.
Still, for those who would like to see tougher immigration enforcement by the Obama administration, the border security bill doesn’t do enough. Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the bill is an attempt to distract from the fact that the DHS has “basically gutted interior enforcement.”
“They’re trying to do something that makes for a good photo-op at the border, but it doesn’t fully address the problem,” Mehlman told TWI.
Republicans who once supported immigration reform, such as Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.), have moved further right. Graham is now calling for a reconsideration of the 14th Amendment, which gives automatic citizenship to babies born in the United States to foreign parents, while McCain has said border security must be improved before he will consider supporting any other immigration reform.
Spokesmen for Graham, McCain and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) did not respond to requests for comment.
The bill is unlikely to “have any effect” on Republicans support for the DREAM Act or other paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants already living in the United States, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies.
“If that’s what [Democrat leaders] had in mind, they’re going to be disappointed,” he told TWI. “The border hasn’t been secured, they just passed a piece of legislation. Until border control measures have been not only legislated but fully litigated, you can’t even start a discussion on legalization.”
As Republicans move to the right on immigration, advocates for comprehensive reform argue the border security bill indicates Democrats are being dragged with them.
“Republicans have falsely and in bad faith used border security to whip up their base in the run up to the fall elections,” Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, said Tuesday. “They’ve blocked real reform and are demanding an endless and fruitless focus on pure enforcement. Unfortunately, Democrats have taken the bait and fallen into the trap.”
Some argued the border does not need amped up security because residents already feel safe there, according to a poll released Tuesday. The four-question poll commissioned by the Border Network for Human Rights surveyed residents of 10 communities along U.S.-Mexican border about their feelings of safety. About 70 percent said they believe they are as safe as they are elsewhere in the country.
Sheriff Richard Wiles of El Paso County, Tex., said on a conference call about the poll that previous efforts to amp up border security were sufficient.
“I do think that resources are misdirected at the border,” he said. “We have had a significant increase and I think they’ve done a great job, but now is the time to look at the real issues and put the resources toward the issues that are really affecting our communities.”