North Country Times
April 23, 2009
by Edward Sifuentes
A group of Republican lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress on Thursday they say would strengthen border security and increase penalties for gun smuggling.
The group, led by Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-El Cajon, and including Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, would mandate that 350 miles of fence be built along the border with Mexico, require employers to verify a worker's legal status and deny federal funds to local governments that provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants.
"We need to get serious about securing our borders once and for all," Hunter said. "This cannot be accomplished with infrastructure, technology or manpower alone. It will require a combination of these resources, as well as better coordination between our federal agencies and stronger enforcement of existing immigration laws."
Immigration has long been a hot-button issue in the region. Hunter's district stretches just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in East County and Bilbray, a former mayor of the border city of Imperial Beach, has made immigration enforcement a hallmark of his election campaigns.
Under the Bush administration, Congress approved building 700 miles of fence, but only half was completed. Hunter's bill would require that the other 350 miles be completed within one year.
In San Diego, the Department of Homeland Security is nearing completion on a double-layered border fence between the Otay Mesa Port of Entry and the ocean, including the controversial sections at Smuggler's Gulch and Friendship Park.
The legislation has little chance of moving forward, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that favors comprehensive immigration reform, including legalizing some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the country.
"I think what Congressman Hunter is offering is his perspective and it is part of a diminishing minority perspective," Noorani said.
Having captured the White House and enlarged their majority in both houses of Congress, Democrats control the debate on immigration reform. The party's leaders, including President Barack Obama, say they favor a comprehensive approach that includes national security and legalizing illegal immigrants.
In December, before he took office, Obama said he wanted to evaluate border security operations before he considers whether to finish building the fence under his administration.
Hunter said he proposed the bill because he feels it is what is needed, not because it is popular.
"I don't know what the (bill's) chances are," he said. "What we are trying to do is what is right."
Bilbray said he also favors dealing with border security and internal controls on illegal immigration, such as employee verification.
"In order to help families and individuals become legal U.S. citizens, we have to address the problems created by our currently inadequate immigration system," Bilbray said. "We need to step up internal enforcement on employers by using the E-Verify program, while at the same time address our border security."
To increase security, the bill would break down barriers between federal agencies and increase penalties for certain crimes, such as weapons smuggling, Hunter said.
For example, only a limited number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are allowed by the Drug Enforcement Agency to investigate criminal drug cases, Hunter said. The bill would give the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, the authority to investigate drug cases at the border.
Other provisions of the bill include:
-- Increasing the minimum mandatory sentence for weapons smuggling to 15 years.
-- Requiring state and local law enforcement to notify immigration authorities when illegal immigrants are arrested.
-- Denying reimbursement of State Criminal Alien Assistance Program funds if local governments prohibit their law enforcement agencies from collecting information about people's immigration status.
The State Criminal Alien Assistance Program helps reimburse local governments for the costs of incarcerating criminal illegal immigrants. California gets about $150 million from the $400 million a year program.
Opponents of the bill say linking local law enforcement and immigration enforcement is not a good idea for public safety. They say illegal immigrants would be deterred from reporting crimes if they believed police would ask them their legal status.
"If police agencies are tasked with the responsibility of enforcing immigration, the trust will be eroded and the community will be afraid, because they will be asked their immigration status," Sylvia Aguilar said in a phone interview. She is a deputy with the El Paso Sheriff's Department and a member of the pro-immigrant Border and Immigration Task Force.
The bill will first go to the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees.