This week starts the big dance on immigration reform, when the Gang of Eight’s bipartisan bill comes to the Senate floor on Tuesday, June 11. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill would provide a path to work-permission -- and ultimately, citizenship -- for most of the undocumented. It would also provide more skilled foreign workers for American employers.
There’s also a lot of new money for border enforcement in the bipartisan compromise. And even more could yet be added, to try to gather additional conservative votes for immigration reform -- in the Senate, and then in the House, where immigration reform faces a serious uphill battle with conservative Republicans.
Last week, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas proposed an amendment that would more than double border-security spending in the current bill -- from $4.5 billion to $10 billion (an additional $1 billion each year for six years). Cornyn also wants to expand requirements for deployment of a biometric exit visa system in all airports where customs agents are stationed (such a system, not currently in place, would help the U.S. better track those who overstay their visas). Finally, Cornyn’s amendment calls for hiring 10,000 more border patrol and customs agents to work the 1,969-mile Southern border -- most of it still unfenced and porous -- as well as official ports of entry.
“There will be some bang for the buck,” if that level of border-security spending is added to the current bill, says Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations. Alden says spending billions on high-tech fences, multiple modes of electronic surveillance, manned- and unmanned-aircraft, and border agents, will lead to more apprehensions of undocumented migrants, as well as drug- and human-smugglers.
But he says increased personnel on the border and deployment of surveillance and search technology has already reduced traffic across the southern border dramatically.
“At some point you get diminished returns” from additional investments, he says, adding that increases spending on workplace enforcement -- busting employers who knowingly hire the undocumented -- could be much more effective in reducing illigal immigration.
Alden says the bigger bang for the buck actually comes from adding customs inspectors, plus additional border-crossing infrastructure, to get more trucks and goods and legal visitors flowing between the U.S. and Mexico.
“You probably get a security boost, as you catch more material trying to get through,” says Alden. “But you also get an efficiency and trade boost, to handle the huge traffic coming across those borders.”
Meanwhile, defense contractors like Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics are now scrambling to sell their military gadgets to secure the border. That’s as military budgets fall, and troop draw-downs proceed from wars in the Middle East. Defense contractors are already hawking their wares to the Department of Homeland Security: drone technology, surveillance systems, radar, long-range cameras, aircraft and land vehicles.
The political maneuvering toward a comprehensive immigration bill that can pass the Senate with significant Republican support is now in high gear. Senator Cornyn’s amendment (which has gotten tentative endorsement from key Senate Republican and Gang of Eight member Marco Rubio of Florida) is designed to attract more conservative Republican votes to the bill. These conservatives (like Cornyn himself) have not yet signaled their support and cite border security as a major concern, insisting they want the border fully monitored, reinforced (with fencing and other barriers), and substantially closed to illegal crossings, before the so-called ‘path to legalization’ measures kick in to move undocumented immigrants toward citizenship.
Democrats have so far indicated they are not willing to add additional border-security or exit-visa-system benchmarks to the bill, for fear they will prove impossible to fulfill, and real-life benefits of work-permission and citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their families will be delayed indefinitely. Democrats also point out that Senator Cornyn and other conservatives have not indicated where they propose to find new federal money to pay for tens of billions of dollars in additional border-security technology, military equipment, and thousands more border and customs agents.