Rep. French Hill: How do we secure the border? Here's what I learned on my trip to Del Rio, Texas

Recently, I visited Del Rio, Texas, marking my fourth visit to the southwest border. My previous trips have taken me to El Paso and Laredo in Texas, and San Diego in California. Del Rio offered a unique perspective to border security because of its rural character, allowing me to continue to build on my understanding of the strategic challenges we face and what the House can do to deliver on our promise to better secure our borders.

Each sector along the southwest border has its own unique geography, economy, and traditions, which determines what that location’s border security should look like and how it should be specifically designed. While in the Del Rio Sector, I learned that, at any given time, only roughly 45 percent of our Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents are patrolling the border with the other 55 percent engaged in administrative activity such as transporting prisoners, doing administrative work, or on leave.

I also learned that the agents are not able to fully utilize all of the resources available to them. For example, the Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez reported that he has $96,000 in high-tech cameras sitting in storage because the county doesn't have the manpower to monitor the feeds once the cameras are installed. This is unacceptable. Taxpayers expect more from the funds we are sending to border, and there are ways to better equip those on the front lines - keeping Americans safe and secure.

While I was there, we also discussed President Trump’s recent decision to deploy National Guard troops to the border. Working carefully with state and local officials, I believe that guardsmen could be beneficial to supplement inadequate manpower by way of aerial surveillance, ground observation, or some appropriate administrative tasks. Clearly, we need more cooperation and coordination to maximize our border security. However, the Guard’s ability to engage in actual interdiction activities is limited. This is a band-aid, not a solution.

One of the key findings from my trips is that a barrier in place – whether a wall, fence, or something altogether different – shapes the response of cartels and illegal immigrants and is a useful tool in helping our agents better patrol the border.

The House is doing our part. The FY18 spending bill that was recently passed by the House and signed into law by President Trump includes important provisions to help secure our nation’s southern border. In addition, the House is currently working on a significant immigration reform bill, the Securing America’s Future Act, that would increase not only physical and technological border security, but would ensure that high-skilled laborers are able to enter the United State to benefit our nation’s economy, all while finding an equitable solution for dreamers.

I had four important and key takeaways from my recent trip.

First, we need to make sure that we have enough manpower patrolling the Southwest Border. The FY18 spending bill funds the CBP at $14 billion, an increase of $1.8 billion from the previous year. Also, the Securing America’s Future Act adds 5,000 Border Patrol Agents and 5,000 CBP officers, while authorizing $8.5 billion for recruitment and retention for the CBP.

Second, we need the proper technology and implementation of it to ensure safety along the border. The FY18 spending bill includes $196 million for “border security technology,” and the Securing America’s Future Act authorizes an additional $5.8 billion for technology over a period of five years. Much of the technology in the Del Rio Sector is outdated, but as mentioned above, tens of thousands of dollars of high-tech equipment isn’t being utilized, thus becoming obsolete as it sits collecting dust. It is important that we are not dumping money into a bottomless pit and that we ensure the technology purchased on the taxpayer’s dime match the capabilities.

Third, we need the proper resources to resolve the 600,000 backlogged immigration cases to enable swift processing of the numerous individuals in detention centers along the border. The FY18 spending bill funds100 new federal judges, bringing the total nationwide to more than 400. We also need to be sure that we are empowering the Department of Homeland Security to detain dangerous illegal immigrants who currently cannot be removed, enhance the criminal penalties for deported criminals who illegally return multiple times, and tighten our laws to do away with frivolous asylum claims. These are all gaps in our current law that the Securing America’s Future Act can help improve or fix.

Fourth, and finally, we must design a coordinated, effective set of barriers including, where key, a wall, fencing, sophisticated technology, and other means, to protect the citizens of our country. Del Rio Sector has 210 miles of border with nine stations, out of which the CBP does important work, but only four miles of this border has of any type of barrier. One of the key findings from my trips is that a barrier in place – whether a wall, fence, or something altogether different – shapes the response of cartels and illegal immigrants and is a useful tool in helping our agents better patrol the border. However, while a wall may do its job well in densely populated places like San Diego and El Paso, it may not be nearly as effective in more rural areas like Del Rio.

Like in any difficult endeavor, "one-size-fits-all" approaches are not effective. Border security strategy requires customization to meet the needs of the local sector’s terrain and access, as well as the resources of federal, state, and local law enforcement of that locality. As such, decisions about how to allocate resources for physical and technological barriers must be done in conjunction with local CBP agents, local law enforcement, and community leaders on what border security needs fit their area of operation.

My brief but informative trips to our southwest border have given me a first-hand look at the diversity of the challenges presented along our important border with Mexico. They have helped me focus on our border debate and argue for alternative plans to keep us safe from the intense criminal efforts to smuggle people and drugs into our country and guns and money out. The FY18 spending bill we passed in the House was a step in the right direction, and we have a president that has pledged to secure our border. We must now pass the Securing America’s Future Act in order to continue moving forward to give Americans confidence that our border will finally be secured.

Republican French Hill represents Arkansas's Second Congressional District.