Congress tightens security on border
WASHINGTON – Even as prospects for a sweeping overhaul of immigration policy remain in doubt, Congress is moving on other fronts to bolster security along the border with Mexico and to toughen enforcement against illegal immigrants already in the United States.
The latest steps came Thursday with the Senate’s unanimous approval, 100-0, of a $32.8 billion funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security that includes additional border agents and more beds in detention centers to facilitate deportation of illegal immigrants.
The discovery in January of a tunnel nearly half a mile long connecting an industrial building in Tijuana, Mexico, with a warehouse in the Otay Mesa section of San Diego, just north of the border, prompted another measure that would make building underground border conduits a criminal offense. Currently, no law specifically targets such tunnels.
The Homeland Security bill demonstrates that even as the House and the Senate remain at an impasse over separate legislation to rewrite immigration laws, Congress is still likely to produce measures to tighten enforcement along the nation’s 2,000-mile southern border and inside the country.
The main challenge of border enforcement “is a question of appropriations,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Referring to the Senate’s immigration legislation, Kyl said enforcement provisions in that bill act as “a blueprint for what we are already doing, and we can continue to do that.”
Throughout four days of debate on the bill, lawmakers raked the department over the coals for its performance, particularly in its response to Hurricane Katrina, and tussled over how to best allocate the bill’s limited funds, given a long roster of priorities.
Attempts by Senate Democrats to rewrite the formula for terrorism grants failed, as lawmakers from smaller states complained that the move would deprive them of funds. Amendments to pay for walls along the border with Mexico and to increase the number of immigration investigators also fell short, due to concerns about funding.
“The problem is, a big job of this bill is choosing where we’re going to protect ourselves: Is it the border, ports, transportation, airports?” said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who sponsored a failed amendment to increase the number of Border Patrol agents.
The bill provides $14.3 billion for defense of U.S. sea and land borders and enforcement of immigration and customs laws – including $2.1 billion for 1,000 more Border Patrol agents and $1.3 billion for 1,000 new detention beds. An amendment sponsored by Kyl and passed by the Senate would add an additional 1,700 bed spaces, bringing the total number for 2007 to the 27,500 requested by Homeland Security.
The legislation passed Thursday comes on top of an emergency bill, passed last month in the Senate, for $1.9 billion to fund capital improvements along the border. The money in that bill was subsequently redirected to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to support Border Patrol agents along the southern border.
The Senate bill will have to be reconciled with the $31 billion Homeland Security funding measure that the House passed in June.