House Border Security Bill Is an Empty Green Suit

By Jessica M. Vaughan on January 20, 2015

On Wednesday, January 21, the House Homeland Security Committee will take up H.R.399, the Secure Our Border First Act of 2015, introduced by the committee's chairman, Michael McCaul (R-Texas). While this bill is an improvement over the border security bill approved by this committee in the previous Congress and, if implemented, would greatly improve our understanding of what actually goes on at the border and ports of entry, it falls far short of what is needed to slow the flow of illegal immigration and prevent the entry of terrorists and criminals. It proposes to spend $10 billion of taxpayer money without ensuring that a single illegal alien will be sent home.

Until lawmakers end the catch-and-release policies of the Obama administration, which in the last year have resulted in the resettling of more than 100,000 new illegal family and child arrivals from Central America, and reverse the collapse of interior enforcement, which encourages millions to remain and attracts more than 200,000 new overstayers every year, any infrastructure improvements, new strategies, and better metrics are pointless. No new drones, surveillance, or intelligence can be effective against illegal immigration as long as jobs, education, health care, and amnesties remain available.

These are the key provisions of the bill:

  • Operational Control and Situational Awareness. The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to be able to observe and interdict all illegal incursions in the high-traffic areas within two years, and in the entire southwest border area within five years. It provides for specific enhancements to technology, infrastructure, and resources to accomplish this. This is an appropriate and worthy objective, but it is not a strategy. Besides, achieving control and awareness will not deter other illegal entry attempts if too many of those apprehended are released into the country instead of removed.
  • 27 Miles of Double Fencing. This is certainly welcome but, again, inadequate. To put this into perspective, Hudspeth County, Texas, alone has 95 miles of unfenced border. We don't need to build fencing along the entire border, but 27 more miles (to be built in three separate sectors) is a drop in the bucket compared to the 700 miles that was authorized (but never completed) by the 2006 Secure Fence Act. And, if Congress just reneges on the authorization like it has in the past, and does not appropriate the funds, it may never be built.
  • Flights, Drones, Towers, etc. The bill directs DHS to deploy additional drones, surveillance flights and towers, radar, communications equipment, maritime assets, boat ramps, forward operating bases (with specific features), and a Carrizo cane plant eradication program. Again, it sounds like Congress is really taking charge, but these assets are not all that helpful unless those aliens observed are caught, and those aliens caught are returned.
  • Metrics. It is widely agreed that the main metric now used to measure the pressure on the border — apprehensions — does not truly measure effectiveness, because it does not tell us how many got past the Border Patrol. The bill directs DHS to collect a more elaborate set of 28 different metrics to determine, among other things, the number of "gotaways". Fine — but the bill ought to also mandate the disclosure of what happens to the apprehended aliens; are they returned, detained, or released by border officials or ICE?
  • Penalties for Illegal Aliens. Section 5 of the bill states that every alien apprehended must face a "consequence". But in contrast to the great detail provided in the sections on metrics and infrastructure, no consequences are specified; there is no requirement for illegal aliens to be sent home. This is important, because the Obama administration's version of a "consequence" is to place the apprehended aliens "into proceedings," and/or apply for asylum, which means they are given a future court date, released, and issued a work permit. More than 90 percent of the family units and unaccompanied minors with final court dates last year absconded from those proceedings and disappeared into the illegal population. With the current dysfunctional state of our immigration system, being placed "in deportation proceedings" is more of a reward than a consequence.
  • Penalties for DHS Political Appointees. Should DHS fail to achieve operational control and situational awareness as required, DHS political appointees would face the specific consequences: no more travel in government aircraft, no training or conferences, and no bonuses, overtime pay, or salary increases.
  • More Personnel. Border Patrol staffing would rise to 21,370 (from 18,127 currently); CBP port of entry staffing would rise to 23,775; Air and Maritime personnel would be increased to 1,675.
  • Access to Federal Lands.The Border Patrol would have access to all federal lands, such as parks and forests, that they currently are prevented from patrolling by the Department of the Interior. This is a very helpful provision, but not exactly a game-changer.
  • Entry-Exit System. Like at least six other bills signed into law before it, this legislation includes a provision to require DHS to establish a biometric exit-tracking system at air, sea, and land ports within five years, assuming Congress actually appropriates the funding. Unfortunately, such a system would be of limited value unless DHS also implements a universal biometric entry record collection system at the land ports, so the land exit records can be compared to something.
  • Cost. The bill authorizes the government to spend $1 billion a year for the next 10 years on this plan.

I've been in touch with several retired Border Patrol officials who have studied this plan. Here is what they have to say about it:

Nowhere in the document was mentioned the URGENT need to begin enforcing current Immigration laws. Nowhere in the document was mentioned the need to discontinue programs such as "catch & release", TPS, and other programs based solely on political considerations which encourage illegal in favor of proven effective enforcement actions.
The program to prosecute every illegal entrant apprehended at time of entry which proved so successful in the Yuma Sector should be initiated and maintained for an indefinite period in all border sectors.
[A] balanced enforcement effort, providing a strong border backed by rigorous interior enforcement, is absolutely necessary. Without this balanced effort, an acceptable degree of security on our Southern Border cannot (will not) be achieved!
DHS security efforts must include the application of swift and strong penalties to illegal border crossers, including prompt removal and prosecution of smuggling networks. Increased penalties for aliens who have illegally entered or attempted to enter the United States will significantly reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Similarly, prompt removal of recent border crossers at and near the border, as well as in our nation's interior, must take priority within DHS.
One notes the primary emphasis in the document on "situational awareness". Well, yes. Unless one knows what is actually going on one is but pursuing the wind if securing the border is the goal — and that should be the case as part of a larger picture. However, what we can observe (by whatever technical means) taking place at the line, and any best guess made as to how many people who enter through ports of entry and fail to leave, is no true reflection on the impacts on the United States. If uncritical immigration were harmless, we wouldn't need immigration laws, but it's not. To be sure we should be able to measure the number of illegal and malafide entrants and even be able to hazard a supportable estimate of how many aliens are here illegally, but what does that really tell us of the perils and adverse impacts they have?

Wrote Zack Taylor, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, in a press release yesterday: "As long as Sanctuary cities, welfare, education, and jobs and principally lack of enforcement and enabling by the federal government, are made available to the undocumented alien, we will not be able to secure the physical border."

If so many respected career Border Patrol officials are underwhelmed by this bill, then members of Congress should be, too.

And consider the title: "Secure Our Border First". First, before what? Before we abandon our half-hearted attempt to block the president's executive actions? Before we tackle interior enforcement needs? Or before we move on to the amnesty and expansion of guest worker programs that appears to be the real priority for top congressional Republican leaders?

The lack of meaningful enforcement measures gives the impression that the backers of this bill are no more serious about addressing illegal immigration and the risks and costs it imposes on American communities than are the Obama administration and the sponsors of the Schumer-Rubio bill that was rammed through the Senate in 2013. This certainly is not what voters expected from the new Republican majority.

The eminently capable members of the House Homeland Security Committee can do better than this, and they must. For ideas, look here, here, here, here, or here.