A $600 million package to boost border security and hire more than 1,000 more Border Patrol agents roiled the political waters in Arizona this week.
The Senate recently made the rare move of reconvening to adopt its version of a funding package adopted by the House.
The vote came after months of controversy about Arizona’s SB 1070 that directed local police to check for citizenship when making any legal stop. The Arizona measure spurred national protests and broad public support, but was then largely gutted by a federal court ruling — which is now under appeal.
In the long shadow of that controversy, the Obama administration reversed a plan to slightly reduce the ranks of the Border Patrol as a budget savings, citing statistics showing a sharp drop in the number of border crossers.
However, under strong pressure from border state lawmakers, the administration reversed its stance and accepted a roughly 5 percent increase in the number of Border Patrol agents. In the past five years, the number of agents on the border has risen from about 4,000 to about 20,000.
First District Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick claimed partial credit as the only Arizona member on the Homeland Security Committee. She opposed SB 1070 as unnecessary and possibly unconstitutional, but also opposed the Justice Department’s lawsuit to block its implementation. Kirkpatrick has also pushed hard for the past year to bolster border security in Arizona.
“The (unanimous Senate) vote was a victory for our border communities and a long time coming. We have fought every step of the way for weeks to end the political games, and make Washington take action to secure our borders. While this is a valuable first step, it will take much more to make up for years of failed policies on the border. Unfortunately, Congress repeatedly let political maneuvering get in the way of putting more boots on the ground as soon as possible. We all need to come together in these hyper-partisan times to do what is right for Arizona.”
Eight Republicans were on Tuesday’s primary election ballot, with Paul Gosar garnering the most votes for the right to oppose Kirkpatrick in the general election. Gosar and the seven other candidates supported SB 1070 and sharply criticized the federal government’s border enforcement policies. They all generally called for big increases in agents and National Guard troops on the border and construction of a 2,500-mile-long double fence along the border.
Earlier this year, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, said the department would reassess the effectiveness of an $8 billion plan to install a “virtual fence” with sensors, radar and cameras along the border. This year’s budget reduced spending on the plan by $226 million.
Sen. John McCain on Tuesday won his fight with former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who accused McCain of being soft on illegal immigration. McCain pushed for more funding for the Border Patrol and the dispatch of National Guard troops to the border.
Both McCain and Arizona Senator Jon Kyl criticized the $600 million boost as too little too late and blamed the House for delaying adoption by making changes in the Senate version.
The special Senate session “wouldn’t have been necessary if the House had simply passed the original Senate bill, but House Democrats chose to play politics and risk delaying funding that is desperately needed in Arizona and other border states,” said McCain and Kyl in a joint statement. “The bill that passed is just a start. We have repeatedly called for these resources and we’re glad that the Democrats have finally started to listen.”
The $600 million package included $32 million for drones to patrol the border and $80 million for more Border Patrol agents. To raise the money, the bill also imposed increased fees for visas for temporary skilled workers.
Ironically, the fierce political fight spurred by SB 1070 comes despite declines in illegal immigration and border crime and an increase in deportations by the Obama administration. During the first nine months of fiscal 2010, the administration deported 279,000 illegal immigrants compared to 254,763 during the same period in 2009 and 141,837 during the same period in 2005.
Meanwhile, the ASU-based Morrison Institute for public policy released a report trying to document some of the impacts of illegal immigration.
The researchers cited Homeland Security figures showing that the number of illegal border crossers captured dropped from 600,000 annually in 2000 to 241,000 in 2009. That number probably has since fallen significantly due to the lack of jobs here, the Morrison Institute researchers concluded.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that about 460,000 illegal aliens live in Arizona, about 7 percent of the population.
The study concluded that illegal aliens account for about 15 percent of the prison population in Arizona, which includes about 19 percent of the prisoners in Maricopa County.
The Arizona Hospital Association estimates that the state’s hospitals spend $24 million annually, after federal compensation, to treat illegal aliens. That’s about 6 percent of the total cost of uncompensated care.
Moreover, despite a drug war raging just across the border in Mexico, major crime rates have dropped significantly in Arizona for the past two years — even in border towns.
Overall, violent-crime incidents in Arizona dropped from 512 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2005 to 447 per 100,000 in 2009 — a 35 percent decrease, according to statistics compiled by the FBI.
The FBI statistics indicate that major crime rates have held steady in Arizona border towns for the past decade, including Nogales, Douglas and Yuma.