Just what does $600 million buy for border security these days – and is it more money the US needs to help tackle illegal immigration?
Half of the funds approved Tuesday by the US House after weeks of political back-and-forth will pay for 1,500 new border agents. Another chunk – nearly $200 million – goes to the Justice Department-supported efforts of the US Marshals and other law enforcement agencies. Two surveillance drones ring up another $32 million.
The payout the House authorized Tuesday is an answer to President Obama's request that more be done to help secure the southern border, but it also represents a shift in strategy – a return to more traditional security techniques for the border.
In March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze funding for a "virtual fence" begun under President Bush in 2006. The string of towers was intended to catch illegal border-crossers using cameras, radar, and ground sensors, but it was "plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines," Secretary Napolitano said. The program had burned through some $2.4 billion between 2005 and 2009.
Border patrol officials expressed frustration at the technology, and wished for more personnel. “We already detect more traffic of illegals than we can apprehend, so we feel the money is better spent putting more boots on the ground than in looking at more technology," National Border Patrol Council president T.J. Bonner told the Monitor in March.
Another border security measure with a high price tag but not many supporters: the 600 miles of fence erected along the border since 2005. A 2009 Government Accountability Office audit found that the fence – still unfinished – had cost $2.4 billion to build, and would require another $6.5 billion to maintain over the next 20 years.
Mr. Obama's answer was to send National Guard troops to the border to bolster intelligence and surveillance in May. At the time, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) said the troops – and the proposed payout – were appreciated, but “simply not enough.”
The package approved Tuesday is an addition to this. It funds 1,000 new border patrol agents, 250 customs and border protection officers at points of entry along the border, and 250 special immigration enforcement agents, investigators, and intelligence analysts, Reuters reported. Funding for the package would come from raised visa application fees for certain companies that bring workers to the US.
Vacations and technicalities got in the way of the bill. The appropriations package, which passed easily Tuesday in a voice vote, was held up in Congress for weeks. An identical version of the bill passed the Senate before its summer recess, but had to be sent back to the House because of an arcane law that says appropriations bills must originate there.
Unless the bill is passed on "consent" by party leaders, it must wait until Sept. 13 when the Senate returns from its summer recess before it can be sent to Obama.