Posted on Wed, Nov. 16, 2005

How about a 'virtual fence'?


Special to the Star-Telegram

As conditions along the U.S. border with Mexico deteriorate, members of Congress as well as state and local officials look for ways to combat criminal gangs, drug traffickers and illegal alien smugglers. Angered by unending waves of illegal immigrants and increasing violence, private citizens are demanding action from the federal government, which has not devoted the funds, resources or personnel necessary to enforce our immigration laws or protect our borders.

One option is to construct a fence along the Mexican border. In urban and high-traffic settings, a physical barrier is a highly effective option. Fences in Southern California have resulted in a significant reduction in illegal crossings. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's recent announcement that he will exercise the authority that Congress gave him last year to waive certain environmental laws to complete a 14-mile stretch of fence near San Diego is welcome.

As chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship, I have worked with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. We have examined all aspects of our broken immigration system, including border security between ports of entry. I have met with many private landowners in Texas and with officials who enforce the laws in the border region.

A physical barrier makes sense in some locations, but a 2,000-mile fence along the entire southern border is a 19th-century answer to a 21st-century problem.

The solution that Kyl and I propose in the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act of 2005 is a "virtual fence" that would accomplish the same goal, but in a way that is faster, more effective and less costly.

Our bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to expand its use of unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras and sensors. It combines the use of that technology with additional boots on the ground -- an additional 1,250 customs and border protection officers and 10,000 new Border Patrol agents over the next five years. And to ensure that the policy of "catch-and-release" is eliminated, it authorizes an additional 10,000 detention beds and enough government lawyers and judges to streamline the deportation process.

Our bill would restore confidence in the rule of law and offers a layered approach to regain control over our immigration system: control of the borders, tough enforcement within the country, and work-site enforcement to remove the magnet that draws people to this country illegally: access to jobs.

The bill increases penalties for alien smuggling, document fraud and gang violence by aliens. It also would provide greater tools for the Homeland Security and State departments to require that countries accept their own citizens back if those people violate U.S. immigration laws. Finally, our bill creates a new employment verification program that makes compliance easier for employers while ensuring enforcement against those who don't.

As Congress moves forward on immigration reform, a commitment by the federal government to enforce immigration laws must be part of any successful solution.

Although other proposals echo my commitment to regain control of the border, the recommendations of one such proposal are for the federal government to draft a Strategy for Border Security and to create an independent committee to advise on border security. Unlike our legislation, that bill authorizes no additional law enforcement personnel or equipment, does not increase the criminal penalties for alien smugglers, gang members and drug traffickers, and does nothing to streamline or improve the deportation system so that those who do not belong here are quickly returned to their home countries.

Enforcement alone will not solve all of the immigration problems. But comprehensive reform will work only if there is enforcement -- on the border, inside this country and at the workplace.