While Washington is focused on the “health care summit” and the treatment of terrorists, there are a couple of other issues on the minds of Arizonans — as I found while I was in the state over the week of Presidents Day. Jobs and border security always come up. In this column, I’ll address the border issues, with a focus on how the administration would deal with these issues under its proposed budget.
Arizonans are uniquely aware that the government still has a long way to go to secure the border and combat illegal immigration. Accomplishing those objectives requires that we dedicate sufficient resources to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country and enforce the laws within our borders.
Since being elected to Congress, I have worked hard to secure those resources. For example, as a result of a bill Congress approved in 2006, 344 miles of pedestrian fence and 298 miles of vehicle barriers have been constructed along the border. In 1996, a measure I pushed doubled the number of Border Patrol agents along the border. Since that time, the total number of agents has increased from 4,000 to 20,119 agents as of January 2010.
We are, therefore, getting close to the 20,000 Border Patrol agent force — there are currently 17,141 agents in the Southwest — that experts believe is necessary to control the southern border. But instead of continuing to work toward the 20,000 agent goal, the president’s budget actually shrinks the Border Patrol by 181 agents in 2011!
Additionally, at a time when more double- and triple-layer fencing is needed, President Obama’s budget for next year anticipates that only $25 million will go toward tactical infrastructure and only one mile of physical fencing will be constructed — even though more is clearly needed.
Within our borders, we must enforce the existing laws and work to restore integrity to our nation’s immigration system. One program that has proven very effective is Operation Streamline, which has deterred illegal immigration by incarcerating illegal border crossers. While this program has dramatically reduced illegal crossings in the two areas where it has been implemented, President Obama’s budget does not support expansion of the program. At my request, DHS and the Justice Department will soon complete a report that will detail the resources and personnel needed to expand the program to more sectors.
Recent reports indicate that DHS is maintaining between 29,000 to 30,000 detention spaces, down from the 33,400 available during the previous administration. According to the Obama administration, it intends to maintain the current numbers, which would make it difficult to expand effective programs like Operation Streamline.
The president’s budget cuts funding for E-Verify, the program that enables employers to check that their new hires can legally work in the country. Under the president’s budget, E-Verify would be cut by $35 million and would not be made permanent. I will continue to urge the Obama administration to improve and expand the program, and support its permanent authorization so both employers and employees will know with certainty that they have a reliable tool to ensure that only eligible individuals work in the country.
Finally, I am disappointed that the president neglected to include funding for the exit portion of the entry-exit system, known as US-VISIT. This important program helps ensure that our nation’s ports of entry facilitate the entry of eligible, legal visitors and temporary visa holders. The exit portion of the program would help DHS determine who is overstaying a visa. Up to 60 percent of illegal immigrants have overstayed their temporary visa, so the exit portion of US-VISIT is a critical tool in helping to reduce illegal immigration.
It is not good enough to maintain the status quo when it comes to securing our borders and preventing illegal immigration; it’s even worse to cut funding for programs that are working effectively. The president should demonstrate that he takes border and interior enforcement seriously and dedicate the resources necessary for success. If he does, I think he will find a bipartisan consensus behind him.
Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees. Visit his Web site at www.kyl.senate.gov or his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/senjonkyl.