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Cornyn files bill to fund parts of wall, increase Border Patrol and ICE agents

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn on Wednesday unveiled a $15 billion border-security bill. The Building America's Trust Act would fund parts of a wall or fence, add Border Patrol and ICE agents to current ranks, and punish "sanctuary" jurisdictions.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks at a conference hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation on Jan. 13, 2017, at the Sheraton Hotel in Austin, Texas.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn on Wednesday unveiled a $15 billion border-security bill that calls for a combination of technology and barriers on the southern border and looks to get tougher on “sanctuary” jurisdictions that don’t enforce federal immigration laws.

During a news conference, Cornyn, R-Texas, tried to strike a balance between efforts championed by border hawks who support President Trump’s plan to build a wall along the border and the more measured proposals embraced by his border constituents.

He stressed that his bill, which would also fund infrastructure improvements at the country’s ports of entry to facilitate trade, would require the Department of Homeland Security to engage local officials about the federal government’s plans.

“Border security is not a one-size-fits-all proposition,” he said. “Each segment of the border is dramatically different.”

The bill, called Building America’s Trust Act and co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, also includes other measures such as “Kate’s Law,” which would increase penalties for people who have been arrested after being previously convicted of illegally entering the United States.

The bill would fund more U.S. Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as well as more immigration judges and federal prosecutors.

But it’s unclear how well-received that measure will be following the release last week of a report by the Office of the Inspector General stating that those agencies couldn’t provide data to justify a current hiring surge mandated in a January presidential executive order.

“Neither CBP nor ICE could provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the additional 15,000 additional agents and officers they were directed to hire,” the report states. “Inadequate workforce planning will likely undermine the ability of CBP and ICE to achieve hiring mandates and perform mission essential duties and functions.”

During a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, the senator said he'd only read media accounts of that report, and "My sense is what they were saying was there was no plan" on how to deploy new hires. He said his bill provides a road map for that. 

On sanctuary cities, Cornyn said he defines the ambiguous and controversial term as an entity that doesn’t cooperate with federal law enforcement officials when they encounter undocumented immigrants. He said federal funds should be withheld from those governments but added that he doesn't want the federal government to overreach.

“We’re not asking locals to take over the [immigration enforcement] job,” he said. “I don’t believe we should commandeer local and state law enforcement authorities.”

In an effort to stop the ongoing surge of illegal entries by Central American children, the Senate bill would also require that unaccompanied minors be “swiftly” screened by immigration judges to determine if they have a legal claim to stay in the country. Current law requires that children who cross the border illegally and are not from Mexico must be processed and given a hearing before a deportation is ordered.

Republicans said the policy acts as a magnet for Central American children because they know they won’t be immediately deported. The migrant surge in the Rio Grande Valley has dipped since 2014 — when tens of thousands of children began crossing every month — but the numbers are still significant. From October of 2016 through June 2017, about 20,000 unaccompanied minors have surrendered to or been apprehended by federal officials in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Cornyn’s effort comes less than a week after the U.S. House passed a defense spending measure that included $1.6 billion for Trump’s promised border wall. The money was included in the package after critics said Republicans tied the money to that bill in order to avoid a clean vote on the wall itself.

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