Senate Approves Border Security Bill
Even as prospects for a sweeping overhaul of immigration policy remain in doubt, Congress is moving on other fronts to bolster security along the border with Mexico and to toughen enforcement against illegal immigrants already in the United States.
The latest steps came Thursday with the Senate’s approval, 100-0, of a $32.8-billion funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security that includes additional border agents and more beds in detention centers to facilitate deportation of illegal immigrants.
The discovery in January of a tunnel nearly half a mile long connecting an industrial building in Tijuana with a warehouse in Otay Mesa, just north of the border, prompted another measure that would make building underground border conduits a criminal offense. Currently, no law specifically targets such tunnels.
The Homeland Security bill demonstrates that even as the House and the Senate remain at an impasse over separate legislation to rewrite immigration laws, Congress is still likely to produce measures to tighten enforcement along the nation’s 2,000-mile southern border and inside the country.
The main challenge of border enforcement “is a question of appropriations,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
Kyl said that enforcement provisions in the Senate’s immigration legislation act as “a blueprint for what we are already doing, and we can continue to do that.”
Throughout four days of debate on the bill, lawmakers raked the department over the coals for its performance, particularly in its response to Hurricane Katrina, and tussled over how to best allocate the bill’s limited funds, given a long roster of priorities.
Attempts by Senate Democrats to rewrite the formula for terrorism grants failed, as lawmakers from smaller states complained that the move would deprive them of funds. Amendments to pay for walls along the border with Mexico and to increase the number of immigration investigators also fell short, due to concerns about funding.
“The problem is, a big job of this bill is choosing where we’re going to protect ourselves: Is it the border, ports, transportation, airports?” said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who sponsored a failed amendment to increase the number of Border Patrol agents.
The bill provides $14.3 billion for defense of U.S. sea and land borders and enforcement of immigration and customs laws -- including $2.1 billion for 1,000 more Border Patrol agents and $1.3 billion for 1,000 new detention beds.
An amendment sponsored by Kyl and passed by the Senate would add 1,700 bed spaces, bringing the total number for 2007 to the 27,500 requested by Homeland Security.
The legislation passed Thursday comes on top of an emergency bill, passed last month in the Senate, for $1.9 billion to fund capital improvements along the border. The money in that bill was subsequently redirected to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to support Border Patrol agents along the southern border.
The Senate bill will have to be reconciled with the $31-billion Homeland Security funding measure that the House passed in June. The House measure provides $1.7 billion more than the White House sought. Like the House, the Senate rejected an administration effort to raise taxes on airline tickets to generate an additional $1.3 billion for the department.
Some border security amendments did pass the Senate this week, including a $350-million proposal approved Tuesday for the purchase of helicopters, cars, trucks and other equipment.
Another amendment passed Tuesday allocated $648 million for port security.
And in a voice vote Thursday, lawmakers passed a border tunnel measure sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). It would impose a 20-year prison sentence for building or financing a cross-border underground passageway and would jail for 10 years landowners who displayed a reckless disregard for the construction or use of a tunnel on their land.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, 43 tunnels have been discovered in the U.S., all but one spanning the border with Mexico. Eleven tunnels have been found near San Diego this year, ranging from short, cramped “gopher holes” right at the border to paved half-mile mega-tunnels with electric lighting, like the one officials discovered in January.
That tunnel started in Tijuana and “was incredible,” Feinstein said.
“The danger is clear, and you can be sure there are more tunnels out there.”
Other provisions added to the bill included a measure to allow Americans to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada as long as they were for personal use.
And by a vote of 87-11, senators agreed Tuesday to do away with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and rebuild it with a new name -- the U.S. Emergency Management Authority -- and with more control over disaster programs, along with the ability to communicate directly with the president during a crisis.