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Entry Fee of $2 for U.S. Border Crossings Proposed in New Study by Private Group

Times Staff Writer

Every person who enters the United States by land from Mexico and Canada should pay a $2 entry fee--with the money going to finance tighter border control measures--a private group said Wednesday, claiming that the idea has support in the federal government.

In a new study, the Federation for American Immigration Reform urged that Congress initiate the fees, saying that they would raise $600 million a year which “could fully fund” both the construction of physical barriers along the border and the return of almost a million illegal immigrants to the interiors of their home countries each year.

In interviews, several congressmen endorsed the concept and officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service said that they will consider supporting it but have made no decision. However, immigrant rights activists lambasted the idea, calling it unfair to the millions of people who live near borders and must cross them daily.

“Unreasonable” is the way Cecilia Munoz of the Washington office of the National Council of La Raza described the idea when told of it. “It would be financially burdensome for people who cross the border for perfectly legitimate reasons. What’s the next gimmick to be?”

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The user fee is one of several ideas being promoted by the federation in a 90-page study that will be released today. The study also calls for mandatory sentencing of those who smuggle aliens and drugs into the country and of illegal immigrants who commit crimes. It seeks greater use of high-tech detection devices, and extending of fences and replacing some of them with reinforced earth and concrete structures that resemble retaining walls along highways.

The proposals come as both the INS and Congress grapple with new waves of illegal immigrants pouring into the country--despite the 1986 immigration law that was supposed to stem the flow. The Times reported Wednesday that the federal government plans to construct a four-mile-long ditch at the San Diego border to prevent vehicles from crossing into California.

Moreover, at legal entry points, lines are so long that cars often wait for hours to get checked by border guards--all of which constitutes what California Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) called “a war zone, a circus atmosphere.” Advocates of the user fee envision that it will cut down on the flow of illegal traffic while paying for additional lanes and personnel to handle legal entries.

Bates said that he plans to introduce user-fee legislation, but would call for lower fees than the federation is proposing--a dollar per car and a quarter for people who walk across. Half the money would go to the federal government for border control and the other half would be used by local jurisdictions to offset expenditures on immigrants.

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“With the deficit such as it is and the scarcity of resources, the user fee has a great deal of attractiveness,” said another Californian, Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego), “as long as the money is earmarked for the agencies that are trying to gain control of our borders.” The federation derives its $600-million revenue estimate from INS figures showing that some 300 million crossings are made annually.

Sources at the Justice Department who have seen the proposal by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that works to combat illegal immigration and has the ear of many conservatives, said that “a lot of what’s in their proposal came from us. A lot of the thinking reflects INS thinking.” Roger P. Brandemuehl, former chief of the Border Patrol, co-authored the report.

“Congress seems to be leaning in that direction,” said one source, referring to user fees. “There’s a growing sentiment in government for people who are using services to pay for them.”

Patrick Burns, assistant director for the federation, said that he has talked with a number of INS officials who expressed support for the fees. “They told me it’s going to be hard to sell,” he said, “but we’ve got big problems.”

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Several government officials asserted that legislating user fees to pay for INS border control activities would be a small step, considering that a $10 fee already is assessed every airline passenger entering the country. That revenue is split between the INS and the Customs Service.

INS spokesman Verne Jervis said that the fees, which went into effect in 1986, “have helped; we’ve been able to put more officers on and cut down on the waiting time” at entry points.

As for the new $2 fee proposal, Jervis quoted INS Commissioner Alan Nelson as saying: “We have a copy of the proposal. We have not studied it thoroughly and we do not know what our position will be.”


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