An emerging compromise in the Senate to stiffen border security as a
concession to legalize millions living in the country unlawfully may actually
prevent immigrants from earning citizenship, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke said
"These proposals make it much harder for us to achieve the goal of comprehensive immigration reform and ensuring immigrants have a tough but fair path to citizenship," said O'Rourke, D-El Paso, about a plan that would double the number of Border Patrol agents, add miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and increase technological monitoring of the border.
The deal -- aimed at winning increased Republican support for an immigration bill in the U.S. Senate -- was unveiled Thursday by a bipartisan group of senators known as the "Gang of Eight."
Under the developing compromise, the government would grant legal status to immigrants living in the United States illegally at the same time the additional security was being put into place. Green cards, which signify permanent residency status, would be withheld until the security steps were complete.
Officials said the plan calls for doubling the size of the Border Patrol with 20,000 new agents, completing 700 miles of new fencing along the border with Mexico and buying new surveillance drones to track would-be illegal border crossers. The cost of the additional agents alone was put at $30 billion over a decade.
"The current proposal in the Senate is fiscally irresponsible and achieves nothing except possibly delaying or denying immigration reform," O'Rourke said. "As we saw with SBInet, spending billions of dollars on sensors, cameras and military security technology is great for the contractors who get the business, but it's terrible for the taxpayer and the residents of the border."
SBInet was part of the Secure Border Initiative that called for surveillance and communication equipment such as drones, cameras and motion sensors to be installed along the border. The program was canceled in 2011 amid criticism that it was costly, was ineffective and left private contractors to oversee homeland security.
O'Rourke said he would instead support increasing Customs and Border Patrol agents to create jobs and make international trade easier.
Next week, O'Rourke will lead a presentation on the House floor with other border representatives "to show the positive dynamics of the U.S.-Mexico border as it relates to jobs, economic growth, trade and security," he said.
The congressman said increasing Border Patrol numbers and erecting more miles of a border fence provide marginal security benefits at a high cost to taxpayers.
Border Patrol agents in 2005 apprehended an average of 106 immigrants each, O'Rourke said. Last year, after the size of the agency was doubled, that average was 17 -- and was only 3.5 in the El Paso Sector -- he added.
"We can't even pay our Border Patrol agents to ensure that they have appropriate overtime and are free from furlough threats," O'Rourke said. "How are we going to afford to double that force for an ever diminishing security benefit?"
O'Rourke cited El Paso and San Diego as the safest cities in the country right now and said northbound apprehensions are at a record low while southbound deportations stand at a record high.
"I think it is fair to measure the effectiveness of our border security efforts, but when we do, it shows us that we don't need additional border security in a path-to-citizenship bill," O'Rourke said.
He referred to proposals aimed at delaying legalization until border security improvements were proved effective rather than merely deployed, including that of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, whose proposal was tabled on a vote of 54-43 on Thursday.
Cornyn has said his "Results" proposal, which asked for proven operational control of the Southwest border before amnesty was granted to the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, was an attempt "to turn border security rhetoric into reality."
"Why should the American people trust Washington to enforce this part of the essential bargain, the security part of the bargain, if it has failed to do so in the past?" Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, asked in a press statement Thursday. "We need something enforceable, which is what my amendment provides."
In a news conference Thursday before the compromise proposal's announcement, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, compared the deal to the reform enacted in 1986 and said the amnesty occurred but the border never got secured. "If the legalization happened first, the border security never will," Cruz said.
According to news reports, Cruz accused the White House and Senate Democrats of deliberately sabotaging the immigration bill before it reaches the House. He accused Demo crats of seeking a political victory by passing a bill through the Senate that the House probably won't support.
Under the developing agreement, immigrants would not be able to claim credit for Social Security taxes they paid while working without legal status. Credits are used to determine the amount in Social Security benefits a worker receives after retirement. Another change would prohibit the administration and individual states from granting welfare benefits for five years to immigrants now living unlawfully in the United States.
The officials who described the emerging deal spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the private talks. If ratified, the compromise would include concessions by both sides.
The agreement began to take shape in the past several days beginning with meetings involving Republicans who were uncommitted on the legislation but receptive to supporting it after changes were made.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., both authors of the bill, joined the talks.
If agreed to, the changes could clear the way for a strong bipartisan vote within a few days to pass the measure that sits atop President Barack Obama's second-term domestic agenda.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
(c)2013 El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
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