Legislation filed by two of Texas’ top Republican members of Congress — which would mandate that the Department of Homeland Security meet certain benchmarks on border security — won’t necessarily derail current efforts to overhaul the country’s immigration system, policy experts say. But the bill ensures that the Texas conservatives will have their say in the immigration reform debate.
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, filed the Border Security Act of 2013, which would require, among other things, that DHS return to measuring how much of the border is under “operational control,” which the agency stopped doing in 2010. It would also mandate that agents on the border set a goal of apprehending 90 percent of the people who enter the country illegally, and it would aim to cut the wait times at the nation’s ports of entry in half. The bill would also require DHS to consider expanding the use of drones for monitoring the border.
Under operational control, illegal crossers are detected, deterred or apprehended at the border or within 100 miles of the border after entering the country. A 2011 Government Accountability Office study found that about 44 percent, or 875 miles, of the 2,000-mile southern border were under operational control. The same report indicated that although DHS was developing new methodology to measure success, it had not yet done so.
Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law, said the legislation reflects the order that the immigration reform debate will follow.
“When senators feel strongly about various aspects of this bill, they’ll start introducing either amendments or bills like this,” he said. “I don’t think that it finally means much about where we will end up, and I don’t think advocates should assume that just by introducing this bill that this will take precedence.”
Instead, Chishti said, Cornyn, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee, and McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, are giving formal notice of where they stand, which he said is a healthy move in today’s climate.
“They are sort of showing their cards in advance of the introduction of the Gang of Eight,” he said, referring to a bipartisan group of senators crafting their version of immigration reform. “That’s the only important thing one can read of this. If the ranking member of the subcommittee and the chair of the House Homeland Security committee are saying this, this will be an important part of the debate.”
The Gang of Eight is moving ahead and plans to unveil its proposal as early as this week, The Hill reported Tuesday. Details of the plan have been scarce, but when the proposal was announced in January, the senators said it included mechanisms by which undocumented immigrants could obtain residency status, such as registering with the federal government, passing background checks, learning English and proving their employment.
Cornyn and McCaul said their intent is not to stymie the current discussion, nor is it to tell DHS how to secure the border. Instead, they argue that members of Congress need to be well informed before making any decisions.
“We are not expressing in this bill any opinion on whether this will be a trigger or a sequence of events” on immigration reform, Cornyn said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. “We think it’s important that Congress, whether it’s the House or the Senate, as we address all of these issues on the context of immigration reform, that members have this to inform their judgments.”
Cornyn added that during private conversations with Senate Gang of Eight members Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., he learned that they were “flummoxed” after discovering there is no current tool to evaluate DHS’s progress.
The Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based organization that wants immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, discredits the Border Security Act of 2013 as little more than a political ploy.
“We all agree there needs to be a way to measure what DHS is doing at the border and whether or not it is working. But now that ‘operational control’ has been scrapped, maybe we can look at whether DHS has done everything that politicians have asked for in the past,” Cristina Parker, communications director for the organization, said in a statement. She added that since 2007, DHS has not only expanded drone use but also built hundreds of miles of walls and fencing and doubled the number of agents on the ground, a fact the U.S. Border Patrol routinely advertises.
“It's obvious to those of us who actually live and work at the border that we are a political football in the immigration debate,” she said.
Jeremy Robbins, the director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of business owners and elected officials that advocates for immigration reform that expands access to visas and includes a path to legal status, said the organization wasn’t worried that the Cornyn-McCaul measure would hold up progress.
He acknowledged that there are two schools of thought on immigration reform and border security: one where the border needs to be secured before anything else, and another where the system is overhauled and illegal entries becomes less of a problem because of additional legal methods to enter.
“I think we are somewhere in the middle but certainly closer to the latter in the sense that the first position just doesn’t make sense empirically," he said. “There is no number of people you can put on the border and fix the problem. People are coming here to work, and 40 percent of the people here are overstaying their visas. They are not coming across the border [illegally],” he said.
In an email sent out Tuesday, Cornyn’s office said the measure has support from key border groups, including the Border Trade Alliance, the Texas Border Coalition and the South Texans’ Property Rights Association.
Monica Weisberg-Stewart, the chairwoman of the Texas Border Coalition’s immigration and border security subcommittee, said that while the federal government has spent more than $90 billion over the past decade to secure the border, the results are mixed. Apprehension rates may be up for illegal crossings in between the country's official border checkpoints, she said, yet powerful drug cartels from Mexico "continue to enjoy commercial success along the border, smuggling more drugs than ever into the country through these border crossings."
"It's an unfortunate fact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not developed a cohesive strategy to correct this imbalance," she added.