Dawn Garner of Naco, Ariz. - a dusty town on the US border with Mexico - still remembers the day in 1999 when federal agents discovered a tunnel beneath the home of her daughter's schoolmate - under the bedroom.
"There was $1.5 million in cash, 2,600 pounds of cocaine, and evidence of human smuggling ... it went clear into Mexico," says the teacher and mother of three. Federal agents were monitoring cocaine trafficking and the movement of illegal immigrants in and out of the tunnel for months. But when it came time to prosecute, she says, indictments of nearly a dozen produced only minor prison sentences for two.
"Most of them got off scott free because it turned out there's no law against tunneling beneath the US border," Ms. Garner says.
She and thousands of border residents from San Diego to Texas hope that new legislation in Congress will criminalize the act of constructing or financing such tunnels into the US. Senators are introducing a bill this week that would also imprison for up to 10 years those convicted of negligently permitting such tunnels on their land.
Forty tunnels have been discovered into the US since 2001, according to the California Department of Justice. The most recent was a half-mile corridor from Tijuana into San Diego, considered the largest cross-border tunnel ever discovered in the US. The tunnels are typically built to smuggle drugs but later become corridors for illegal immigrants, federal agents say.
Bill sponsors, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, say they are concerned that the tunnels could become avenues for smuggling weapons and terrorists.
"For years, smugglers have tried to go around our border checkpoints, now they are trying to go under them," said Ms. Feinstein in a statement. "This is a serious issue not just for San Diego and California, but the entire country."
The Kyl-Feinstein legislation would impose punishment of up to 20 years in prison for builders or financiers of the tunnels, up to 10 years for landholders, and double the sentences for those using the tunnels to transfer weapons, drugs, terrorists, or illegal goods.
"This legislation has the kind of teeth that is lacking in so many of the US regulations," notes Garner, who says between 20 to 60 illegal immigrants trespass on her five-acre property daily. "It would be putting down punishments in black and white, so not so many people would keep getting away with it."
The proposal comes after months of increased violence along the US border. In November, Mexican gang members executed three cross-border drug dealers in Naco, and then posed in Mexican newspapers threatening more violence against US law enforcement. There have also been armed skirmishes across the Texas border, and federal seizures of stockpiled rifles, grenades, and other explosives.
Immigration reform groups say the new legislation does not go far enough because it does not address the overall problem of the American economy as a magnet for illegals.
"It is understandable that someone with longstanding concerns about immigration such as Feinstein would react to the shocking news about tunnels on the US border," says John Keeley, spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. The San Diego tunnel and the caches of weaponry show the increased sophistication and commitment of immigrant and drug smugglers, he says.
The San Diego tunnel discovered in January was more than nine stories below ground, boasting drainage systems, cement flooring, and lighting. The operation masqueraded as a produce distribution company known as "V & F Distributors, LLC." The tunnel's entrance was in a small office inside their San Diego warehouse covered by four square tiles. More than 1 ton of marijuana was discovered inside on both sides of the border.
"Until the US Congress comes up with some kind of credible enforcement along the border overall, the issue will be tunnels this week, airports next week, and something else after that. We need a sober assessment of an entire system which is broken. Not piecemeal solutions for each new moment of crisis," Mr. Keeley says.