The bipartisan group of U.S. senators known as the “Gang of Eight” that is crafting a comprehensive immigration reform package has, by anyone’s estimate, a tough job. Writing a bill that can pass muster with a Democrat-controlled Senate, a Republican-controlled House and that will get signed by the president is hard enough on any topic, never mind how difficult it is to do on an issue that gets as emotional a response as immigration.
But the Gang’s already difficult job gets even harder with its provision that U.S. borders must be verified as secure before any plan to move the nation’s estimated 11-12 million undocumented immigrants on a pathway to potential legalization can be implemented.
As encouraged as I am that this influential group of senators is working diligently, I hope that its approach to border security will not simply be to appropriate more dollars for Border Patrol and call it a day.
- Nelson Balido
Determining whether security has been sufficiently achieved will fall on a commission comprised of “governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border.”
All of which raises these questions: How will such a commission know when the border is secure? What does a secure border look like? What should a secure border look like?
Half of the Gang recently toured the Tucson, Ariz. Border Patrol Sector, which included a stop in the port community of Nogales. It was there where the senators got a peek at just how complicated defining border security really is. While on their tour, the senators witnessed a woman scale an 18-ft. border fence from the Mexican side and shimmy down to the U.S. side. She was easily apprehended by Border Patrol agents, but the scene made an impression on New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who was making his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Senator (John) McCain and Senator (Jeff) Flake had impressed upon our group from the beginning the need to do something further on the border, and this trip certainly strengthens that view,” Schumer told reporters.
As encouraged as I am that this influential group of senators is working diligently to confront one of the most challenging issues of our time, I hope that its approach to border security will not simply be to appropriate more dollars for Border Patrol and call it a day.
To his credit, Sen. Schumer indicated that he and his colleagues recognize that more Border Patrol agents, an agency that has gone from just 4,000 in 1993 to over 21,000 in 2012, isn’t a silver bullet.
"What I learned today is we have adequate manpower, but not adequate technology,” Schumer said after the Nogales tour.
The senator is partially right. More technological resources are needed for Border Patrol. But Customs and Border Protection at the ports of entry could use the manpower help as well as more technology. As the grip on the vast expanse between the ports continues to tighten, smugglers and drug traffickers are already taking their chances at the ports. CBP needs to be ready.
And any border security plan must pass muster with American taxpayers who, despite their eagerness to see a deal get done, aren’t going to support a plan that breaks the bank. That’s why, as much as I support unmanned aerial vehicles for border surveillance, they are a lot more expensive than those four-pawed, tail-wagging drug sniffers at the ports, or small twin engine aircraft.
Finally, border communities are holding their collective breath over the component in the proposal that any bill “will require the completion of an entry-exit system that tracks whether all persons entering the United States on temporary visas via airports and seaports have left the country as required by law.”
If an exit system becomes a negotiating point, I would urge lawmakers to proceed with extreme caution before extending the exit system concept to the land borders. Unless border region citizens have the utmost confidence in the efficiency and efficacy of such a system, they will never support a system that turns their communities into parking lots for outbound traffic, replicating the same inefficiencies we see on the inbound side.
There aren’t easy answers for the questions of what constitutes a secure border. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also a member of the Gang of Eight, was right to urge Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Leahy not to rush an immigration package through the legislative process. A proposal that has the potential to affect our borders so dramatically is too important not to get it right.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido