The 700-mile border fence Congress approved for construction in a session-ending deal was little more than a fast act of political cosmetics in an election year and may never come to fruition, say immigration advocates looking ahead to the Democratic-led 110th Congress.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., will re-evaluate the border fence issue when he becomes chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in January. Thompson has said that while a physical fence may be a good idea in some urban areas, the issue is broader than a physical barrier. He has voiced support for a type of "virtual" fence along some parts of the border.
"Mr. Thompson supports fencing in some cases, especially urban areas, but to get border security right, we also need more Border Patrol agents, more detention space, reliable intelligence and better equipment," said Dena Graziano, spokeswoman for committee Democrats.
Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a multi-part series on legislative and ethics priorities for Democrats when they take over the congressional majority in January 2007.
The border fence has come under fire from Democrats and pro-immigration groups as well as some Republicans who say erecting a fence isn't a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform.
"I think the fence vote was about people keeping their jobs … I think it was a political vote that doesn't represent very deep thinking on enforcement," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration advocacy group. "The real debate is one about full-fledged reform. You can't just take a little piece of it and hope that's enough"
"There is no quick fix to our nation's immigration problem and acting like simply building fence will solve it is insulting to the intelligence of the American people," Graziano said.
Thompson likely will be working closely with the House Judiciary Committee, which has oversight for broader immigration issues. Sources say Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who was an immigration attorney before getting elected, is at the front of the line to be head of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee.
"When the time comes, I'm sure all parties with a stake in the issue will sit down, vet ideas and figure out the best way to deal the fencing issue," Graziano said.
Those in favor of more stringent immigration controls say while sensors, heat detectors and underground seismic activity trackers may have been used to thwart insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have yet to prove they can prevent illegal immigrants from coming over the border into the United States. Those immigration hawks say have little hope Democrats will make up for what they consider a shortfall in President Bush's approach.
"I think the question is whether the Democrats might follow this lame-duck president off a bridge and take a risk of compromising national security because the president just doesn't care," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which promotes strict controls over border crossings.
"I'm sure that there are some sort of far-left Democrats who would be tempted to follow the president and his lead but now the Democrats have political accountability so if Bennie Thompson argues against the fence and a terrorist comes across where the fence would have been, it's the Democratic Party that has accountability for that," he said.
'Virtual Fence' Finds Favor
Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have both signaled concern about the border fence, and are looking to technology for a more politically satisfying solution.
DHS has awarded Boeing a contract for the Secure Border Initiative (SBInet) to handle technology upgrades used in controlling the border, including increased manned aerial vehicles (USVs) and next-generation detection technology.
Other parts of SBINet include increasing the number of agents at the border and ports of entry, more enforcement of current immigration, expanded detention and removal capabilities to eliminate the practice of "catch and release" and more enforcement of laws at worksites.
"It's a long-term strategy for enforcement along just the northern and southern borders," said DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen. "It's beyond physical borders like fencing. It looks at how to deploy tech with fencing, which would mean camera systems, satellite, radar, sensors — all of that, lighting systems — how you integrate that with fencing and also integrate that with the Border Patrol on the ground so that they can deploy quickly and responsively to incursions along the border."
Boeing has proposed 1,800 towers equipped with cameras, sensors and links to computers along the U.S. borders with both Mexico and Canada. It's relying heavily on adapting military technology from the battlefield.
The company has received $67 million for the first phase, which will cover a 28-mile section near Tucson, Ariz. After eight months of use, DHS will determine whether it was worth the money and how effective it was at preventing illegal border crossers.
"I sort of agree with them that a virtual fence or half a fence or a whole fence — none of those measures is going to be adequate" on their own, the NIF's Kelly said. "But I think all those tools need to be tried and need to be funded … even with the most powerful arsenal, it's not enough — it's impossible to stop the flow of people coming."
She added: "Don't do it in isolation of a bigger solution."
Stein said Thompson would be compromising national security if he did away with the physical fence altogether.
"His approach needs to be security first, if that's the role he's going to play as a credible chairman of that committee, he'd have to make a very convincing case that security is going to be better served with technology," Stein said.
"No physical structure itself is going to solve the problem but nothing else makes sense without it … just because opponents of immigration control decided to make the wall an issue … doesn't mean that it doesn't have a vital and appropriate role to play with these sensors," she said.
Stein said both Democrats and some Republicans are more than disenchanted with Bush's lack of progress on the issue — as are voters as evidenced by the midterm election results — but when the new Congress comes into session a narrow window may a time in which everyone will play nice in order to get some sort of comprehensive immigration bill done.
"I keep thinking there's going to be some honeymoon period between us and the Democrats," Stein said. "For those Republicans who want to save their party's prospect in '08, they have to move beyond the president's myopic ... approach to a defense of issue that actually put them in power in 1994."
Kelly forecasted that early next year, the Senate Judiciary Committee — which will be chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who will work closely with ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania — will move a bill similar to one passed this year by the Senate, which, among other things, will put 500 more full-time port of entry inspectors and add more homeland security personnel and U.S. Marshals to investigate alien smuggling and other immigration-related crime; increase the number of full-time active duty Border Patrol agents by 2,000 in this fiscal year and add more UAVs in the air, along with other virtual surveillance equipment.
"I suspect if the stars line up, we can have that bill on the [Senate] floor in the spring — that would be ideal," Kelly said, adding that the process likely will take longer to wend its way through the House.
FAIR sent a letter to Thompson earlier this month, asking him to carry through on the 700-mile fence commitment, along with cracking down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. The security fence would be an "important component of a wider strategy" to address illegal immigration and homeland security, Stein wrote in that letter.
"The American public changed leadership in Congress because, among other things, they believe that the Bush administration has failed to make our nation less vulnerable to terrorists attacks, and because the administration's lax attitude toward illegal immigration harms America's most vulnerable workers and is undermining the middle class," Stein wrote. "They will be sorely disappointed if the Democratic leadership pursues the same failed policies.
"The threats to both are real and they cannot be ignored while a new group of politicians posture instead of act."