Congressmen glimpse Southwest border security
San Antonio Express News - Aaron Nelson
MISSION — As a $10 billion border security bill moves to the House amid heated debate over immigration, a whirlwind visit to some of the busiest areas along the Southwest border has done little to dissuade a Republican delegation from the notion that border crime poses an imminent threat to national security.
“We're going to have another surge,” said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, referring to Central American immigrants who poured into the Rio Grande Valley last summer. “What happened last August could happen again, and I predict that it will, so time is not on our side. In fact, we need to act, and act quickly.”
McCaul, who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security, led one of the largest congressional delegations to visit the border in recent memory, making stops in San Diego, Arizona and wrapping up in South Texas, where a few months earlier unaccompanied minors and families from Central America turned themselves over to law enforcement agencies by the thousands.
On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee passed the Secure the Border First Act — voting along party lines — and the full House is expected to take up the legislation early this week. But while Republican leaders have blocked previous attempts to address the issue, and some conservatives already have voiced worries that this bill is too lenient on illegal immigration, McCaul described it as the most comprehensive effort yet to empower law enforcement agencies to take on criminal activity on the border.
“There will be critics of this bill,” McCaul said. “Some people just want to give up, but I'm going to fight.”
McCaul defended the bill that he said is designed to funnel the resources necessary for law enforcement agencies to effectively police the border, including aerostats, sensor surveillance technology and the redeployment of Department of Defense assets to the Southwest border.
“We want to have 100 percent visibility of the border,” McCaul said. “We want to be able to see from the air what is happening on the ground. Until you can see that, you can't stop it because you don't know what you're missing.”
With the additional resources, border agencies would be required to achieve operational control of the border, which is defined as stopping or turning back all attempted border crossers. High-traffic areas would have to reach operational control within two years and operational control of the entire border within five years, a goal that some federal officials argue is not possible.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement the “bill is extreme to the point of being unworkable; if enacted, it would actually leave the border less secure.” Even the U.S. Border Patrol regards the mandatory standards “impossible to achieve,” Johnson said.
Environmental groups also were quick to condemn the bill as destructive to sensitive ecosystems and endangered animals like the jaguar, ocelot and Sonoran pronghorn. And a mandate to construct an additional 37 miles of border fence could hit a nerve in the Rio Grande Valley, where communities fought construction of dozens of miles of fencing just a few years ago.
“Fences don’t make our communities safer, and in some cases they make our border less safe as they drive those seeking to unlawfully enter this country to areas that are more remote,” said U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, a ranking member of the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee.
Even as visiting congressmen motored down a tranquil Rio Grande in Border Patrol river boats, several expressed concern over the influence of drug cartels and human trafficking organizations in the region. And yet, border communities in Texas remain among the safest in the country, according to FBI rankings of violent crime.
In November, President Barack Obama, frustrated with the impasse on immigration in the House, stirred the ire of Republicans when he announced executive action on immigration to shield about 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Oppenents argue that Obama’s immigration plan would incite another wave of illegal immigration.
“We secure the border, enforce our laws and then we start talking about how we fix our broken immigration system,” said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas. “This is a border security bill ... not an immigration bill.”