The U.S. Border Patrol would have greater freedom to patrol federally protected lands, and the Texas National Guard would be fully funded for permanent border security operations if a key Texas Republican has better luck on immigration legislation with a new Congress.
The Secure Our Borders First Act, filed by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, would also expand fines levied against people caught crossing the border illegally, transfer extra military equipment to border agencies and limit pay raises and travel for appointees to the Department of Homeland Security if the border isn’t sealed in five years.
The measure is a follow-up to a 2013 McCaul bill, the Border Security Results Act, which gained bipartisan support in committee and passed out unanimously, but failed to reach the U.S. House floor for a vote.
The bill appears to have a better chance of advancing than McCaul’s last effort in the new GOP-controlled Congress. The Homeland Security Committee, which he chairs, will consider the proposal on Wednesday.
“It is the toughest border security bill ever before Congress, with real penalties for the administration for not doing their job,” McCaul said in a statement. “We need this legislation to protect the American people and sovereignty of this nation.”
McCaul filed his bill during the state’s ongoing efforts to secure the border with the National Guard last summer. That effort calls for as many as 1,000 Texas soldiers to patrol the Rio Grande Valley, and came in response to a surge of illegal immigration last summer. The guard presence has been extended by the state’s leadership through March. Border Democrats have pushed back and said the deployment stains the area’s reputation and sends the wrong message to its Mexican neighbors.
David Aguilar, the former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and former chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, said the National Guard deployment in McCaul’s plan shouldn’t be seen as soldiers with guns and free range to arrest or detain people.
“I would go as far, from a personal perspective, to say it should not be applied in that fashion,” he said. “But it should be and can be welcomed to be applied in the support mode” including aviation and surveillance missions.
Aguilar, now a partner and co-founder of Global Security and Intelligence Strategies, called McCaul’s bill a good “road map.”
“It sets the parameters and the requirements that should be focused on,” he said.
The issue of Border Patrol access to federal lands will likely reignite a debate between environmentalists and proponents of more security.
Policies put in place by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to protect endangered species and the environment also prevent agents from gaining access to some federal land near the border, according to a report by the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. McCaul's bill would prevent those departments from denying the Border Patrol entry, and allow construction of roads or installation of surveillance equipment on federal lands within 100 miles of the border.
When a similar measure was added to an emergency funding bill last summer, John Leshy, the solicitor of the Department of the Interior during the Clinton administration, told U.S. News and World Report the move was “basically Republicans using the border stuff to waive environmental laws and open up roads along the border to activities that would otherwise be controlled by land-management entities."
McCaul’s bill has several original Republican co-sponsors, including 10 from Texas. But some Republicans say the measure doesn’t go far enough, and criticized the bill for introducing new legislation.
“Why would Republicans introduce new border security bench marks and expect the president to implement them at a time when he has nullified our current laws?” the Conservative Review wrote in a political commentary. “Why not focus exclusively on cutting off funding for agencies until he agrees to implement the laws on the books, as House conservatives pushed for last week?”