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Immigration reform's 'surge': The politics works, but will the policy?

The border security amendment that cleared the Senate Monday is the key to bringing in a big, bipartisan majority for the immigration reform bill. Critics say there are more effective ways to spend resources.

By Staff writer / June 26, 2013

The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Ariz., as seen in March. In a bid to win broader bipartisan support for a proposed immigration reform bill, the US Senate this week passed a measure mandating 700 miles of fencing along the southern border.

Samantha Sais/Reuters/File



Immigration reform continued forward on Wednesday, when the Senate approved an amendment promising a "border surge" by a 69-27 vote. 

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But that same amendment, a compromise struck between Republican senators and the "Gang of 8" authors of the immigration bill, is being criticized as being more about big, splashy numbers than finding best policy to staunch illegal immigration. 

Attracting the most skeptical head-cocking in and around Capitol Hill is $30 billion in new funds to double the number of border patrol agents on the southern border – a splurge that more than tripled the bill’s cost.

That’s before an additional chunk of funds to expand southern border fencing to 700 miles from the 350 required miles in the original bill, helping to bring the bill’s total cost to $48 billion, up from some $8 billion in its original form

“If you really wanted to spend money, this is not where I’d want to spend money,” says Seth Stodder, who served as as director of policy and planning for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from 2001 to 2004, of the border-security amendment struck by Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota with the "Gang of Eight" authors of the immigration bill.

“I’m torn. I understand the politics of it. I understand we need to do something that people in the Senate and in the House are sufficiently comfortable with the idea of immigration reform,” says Mr. Stodder, now a partner at the law group Obaghi and Stodder and who supports the broader immigration reform bill. “If that’s the price we have to pay to fix the immigration laws, I might be willing to pay it. Is it good policy? Probably not.”

Nothing’s wrong with a bumper crop of border agents, skeptics of the measure say. But funding enough agents to park them about a football field apart every hour of every day from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, could be money better spent on less boldface priorities with potentially greater return for American border security, critics say.

Better, Stodder says, would be to carve off some of the Corker-Hoeven amendment’s resources to improve interior immigration enforcement, including federal prosecutors and more immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) special agents.

Or how about boosting the ranks of federal and state labor inspectors, suggests David Kallick of the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute. Such reinforcements not only would make sure the undocumented aren’t working off the books but also would help to see that other workplace protections are working properly. (Mr. Kallick notes that the number of federal labor inspectors has declined by 30 percent over the past two decades, even as the undocumented population has exploded almost fourfold over that time.)

Inspectors, ICE agents, and prosecutors, coupled with the bill’s mandatory national implementation of workplace employment verification known as E-Verify, would allow the government to tighten up what policymakers call the “second border,” the line of defense between an illegal immigrant and a job. 

By making it tougher for those in the country illegally to work, the theory goes, foreigners would be less interested in crossing the beefed-up southern border or in overstaying their visas. About 40 percent of the nation’s undocumented population today is attributed to visa overstays.

That recipe sounds about right even to some of those who oppose the bill.


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