House Border Bill Advances Without Improvement

On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security committee rubber-stamped Rep. Michael McCaul's flawed border security bill (HR399) without meaningful improvements. The barely-tweaked bill reportedly is scheduled to be considered by the full House next Wednesday, January 28. In its current form, the bill will preserve the current catch-and-release policies, which were expanded even further by the executive actions announced in late November, rendering pointless much of the new spending and metrics-crunching mandated in this bill.

The main change to the bill made in the committee mark-up process was to increase the number of miles of new double fencing from 27 to 48, adding an additional ten miles in the Del Rio sector and another mile in the Tucson sector. This would bring the total length of double fencing up to 84 miles (over 600 miles less than the 700 miles mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006).

The amended product is still obsessed with attaining full Situational Awareness and Operational Control in five years, and oblivious to the fact that the current catch-and-release policies and newly expanded "prosecutorial discretion" policies that spare most illegal aliens from deportation would remain in place. Not only that, it gives oversight authority to an appointed commission that has little accountability to anyone.

To address catch-and-release, the bill should have heeded the recommendations of career Border Patrol and ICE personnel to specify and toughen the penalties that should generally ensue for illegal border crossers – and authorize the tools, such as detention space, to enable this to be implemented. But the bill is silent on what kinds of consequences illegal crossers should face.

At a minimum, it would have been easy for the committee to tack on language from the Carter-Aderholt bill passed by the House last summer to address the border surge (analyzed by my colleague Dan Cadman here). GOP leaders seem to have completely forgotten this successful exercise in sound policymaking and party unification in response to a crisis. That was good governing that was well received by the public, and should have been a no-brainer to resurrect, along with the Goodlatte-Chaffetz bill on asylum reform.

In addition, the bill should have included among the dozens of metrics that DHS agencies will be required to collect at least one or two metrics that would reveal to the public how it is handling new illegal arrivals – such as information on case disposition, whether the alien is detained or released, whether the new illegal arrival appears for court hearings, and whether the new arrival is granted a work permit.

In fact, the bill should prohibit the issuance of a work permit to new illegal arrivals, or anyone in deportation proceedings.

The bill should restore and expand Operation Streamline, a highly effective program that significantly reduced illegal crossings in certain sectors by efficiently detaining and prosecuting new illegal arrivals for the criminal offense of entry without inspection.

The Homeland Security Committee accepted this weakening of the mandate that DHS establish a biometric entry-exit system, which has been on the laundry list of must-do national security improvements since the first World Trade Center attacks in 1993. For example, the bill's loose language calls for biometrics to be collected at land ports of entry, but fails to specify that biometrics should be collected from all foreign visitors who enter at the land ports of entry.

And, it fails to synchronize the deportation process for legal entry overstays with the way illegal border crossers are treated – both are recent illegal arrivals, and there is no good reason that overstays should be harder to deport than those who came over the land border.

Finally, in the section that supposedly intends to give the Border Patrol access to federal land within 100 miles of the border, from which it is currently blocked, the language of the bill appears to actually reverse a critical provision in current law that provides agents with the authority to access and patrol on public and private lands within 25 miles of the border (Section 13(e)(2). This could be a drafting error, but it urgently needs to be examined.

The pace at which this bill is being rammed through the House suggests that the leadership is eager to pass a token bill and then inform the public that the border problem has been solved, while leaving the president's executive amnesty intact and his abuse of authority unchallenged. If the rest of Congress goes along, they will have squandered the political momentum gained from their response to the border surge crisis – not to mention wasting an opportunity to restore some integrity to our immigration laws and their sole authority to craft them. Not only would this fulfill a key campaign promise, it would begin to ameliorate the fiscal and security burden that the current policies have imposed on American communities. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen.