WASHINGTON – Some border leaders are denouncing plans in pending legislation to beef up security along the Southwest border and instead urge more staffing at legal ports of entry to boost trade and travel.
Legislation approved by the Senate last month allocates $30 billion for 19,200 additional border patrol agents between ports of entry, Black Hawk helicopters, a fleet of drones and hundreds of watch towers.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who lauded the bill’s border security provisions as a compromise garnering critical Republican votes, nevertheless has said the additional agents and military hardware would render the Southwest border the most militarized “since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, whose district includes El Paso, one of the nation’s busiest ports of entry, countered that the bill’s focus on border security is “completely misguided and misplaced” and that the boost in funding should be redirected to staffing at the ports of entry.
O’Rourke says that Senate Republicans were pandering to anti-immigrant constituents and promoting hardline militarization of the border to avoid appearing soft on illegal migration.
Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, an immigrant safe house in El Paso located just 10 blocks from the border, agreed with O’Rourke’s point.
“If the Senate legislation had passed with a clear enhancement of the international crossing points, I think you would find that welcomed throughout the border,” Garcia said.
During the Senate immigration debate, GOP leaders fought to secure the fence as a price for granting what they perceived as amnesty to some 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. The chamber adopted an amendment crafted by Senators Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., to bolster border security, a legislative move that attracted enough Republican votes for the Senate to pass the bill by a 62-32 margin.
In the House, Republicans have already declared their adamant opposition to the Senate version of immigration and are crafting their own immigration bill. The House will likely vote later this year on that legislation.
Frank Sharry, president of immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said Republicans have “created a false perception” in Washington that border communities are “violent and chaotic,” feeding on reports of Mexico’s bloody battle against organized crime.
Crime statistics support Sharry’s contention about mistaken perceptions. El Paso is ranked the nation’s safest city with a population of over 500,000 for the third straight year by publishing company CQ Press. The Government Accountability Office reported that violent crime fell by 30 percent in Texas’ border counties and 24 percent in the entire state from 2004 to 2011.
“My house is three blocks from the border, and I can tell you I’m living in the safest city in the United States,” O’Rourke said.
He argues that there is little room for improvement on current security levels on the fence. In the El Paso sector, border patrol agents made an average of only 3.5 apprehensions per year per agent, and implementing more boots on the ground would yield “significantly diminishing returns,” O’Rourke said.
Hot and congested
In contrast, boosting staff at ports of entry would slash wait times and yield economic stimulus. Cross-border trade already provides nearly 6 million jobs in the U.S., and $90 billion in trade annually crossing through the El Paso port of entry alone.
The GAO reported last year that U.S. ports of entry along the Southwest border were short 6,000 personnel and $6 billion dollars in funding, with the result that trade between the U.S. and Mexico was hampered.
Christopher Wilson, an associate of the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Center think tank, said the ports are “understaffed and very congested,” resulting in long lines of travelers who must wait several hours, often in 100-degree-plus heat.
The long waits reflect the fact that U.S. border personnel screen arriving visitors for forged visas, drugs and ammunition, which Lisa Brodygaga – an immigration lawyer based in San Benito, Texas, who has litigated over 1,000 cases since 1978 – said are “flowing like the river across the border.” She argued that additional staff at ports of entry would streamline the screening process and impede the trafficking of illegal goods.
Border experts view such inefficient screening as a national security hazard. Hiring more staffers at ports of entry would allow border patrol to identify threats with more accuracy, said Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chair of the border security and immigration division of the Texas Border Coalition, a non-partisan group of elected officials and business leaders who advocate policy serving the interests of the Texas-Mexico Border Region.
“When 9/11 terrorists came into this country, they didn’t swim through the Rio Grande – they came through a port of entry,” Weisberg-Stuart said.