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

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

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.

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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.

“We’re going to get the most bang for the next buck on enforcement if it’s devoted to worksite enforcement or tracking visa overstayers,” says Mark Krikorian, an opponent of the Senate bill and head of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower immigration levels. “We have actually put a lot of money into the border and it’s done a significant amount of good, even though there’s still progress to be made.”

Tightening up interior enforcement will be key over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently found. The CBO estimated that the original Senate immigration bill would reduce illegal immigration by about 25 percent because some advances at stopping would-be border crossers would be partially undone as increased flows of temporary workers would lead to more foreigners overstaying their visas. (The CBO did not formally adjust that analysis after the Corker-Hoeven amendment passed, saying only that its analysts expect the amendment to further reduce illegal immigration.)

The Corker-Hoeven amendment, while focused on border security, does add a couple of wrinkles to interior enforcement policy. It requires the Department of Homeland Security to begin removing illegal immigrants who have been in the US more than six months beyond their authorization and also requires DHS to start a pilot program for contacting foreigners before their visas expire to see if such notifications help reduce overstays. It also adds prosecutors in Arizona, as well as new judgeships in all three border states.

While some would see the Corker-Hoeven funds readministered, advocates on the left see wasteful “border militarization,” a level of security spending that looks like a “Christmas wish list for Halliburton,” as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont remarked on the Senate floor.

Those who oppose the bill likewise say that Corker-Hoeven is overshooting. For some, the critique is that the compromise reeks of Washington-as-usual: Throw a bunch of money at the problem and hope it goes away.

“How stupid is this?” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, on the Senate floor on Monday. “This bill has $48 billion thrown up against the wall to buy the votes to say we’re going to have a secure border, when in fact we’re not.”

For others, the compromise stinks of a search for political cover. They say it is designed to curry favor with conservative voters but does not meet the long-standing demand of some immigration reform critics that security measures be in place before illegal immigrants receive a shred of new legal protection.

Republican leaders in D.C. believe the party’s core supporters are “stupid,” says Mr. Krikorian. “They really think that by making a big show of extra border patrol agents and drones, don’t forget the drones, that that’s somehow going to placate the rubes out in the provinces.”

In defense of the deal, Democrats say “going big” on border security has been a longtime Republican demand -- and that the amendment finally nails down what, exactly, Republicans want in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

“This is what [Republicans] say we need to protect the border,” says Sen. Bob Menendez (D) of New Jersey, one of the bill’s authors. “I have acceded to a large degree to their perspective. What we can’t constantly have is a moving target.”

Republicans like Senator Corker argue that the surge would bring America closer to a secure border than ever before – and that they’ve been able to extract border security concessions of which conservatives have long dreamed.

“There is no question this is a far stronger, far stronger, provision [than the original Gang of Eight bill]," said Corker, after a procedural vote on the amendment Monday.

He added: “It’s beyond border security in many ways.”

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