The House passed several tough immigration enforcement measures before breaking for recess, calling for 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, faster deportation of suspected gang members, authority for state and local officers to enforce immigration laws, and for all voters to present a photo ID before voting in federal elections in 2008. The Senate also approved the plan for increased border fencing.
The provisions follow congressional Republicans' overall emphasis on national security in preparation for the November elections.
Returning from a spate of immigration hearings across the nation, House Republicans vowed to push border-enforcement bills through Congress before adjourning. As part of this effort, the House voted again on September 14, 20, and 21 on several of the provisions in the immigration bill passed by the House in December 2005.
The House voted 283 to 138 in favor of a bill to construct double-layered fencing in two spots in California, along most of the Arizona border, and in heavily populated areas of Texas and New Mexico. The bill also calls on the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take all measures deemed appropriate and necessary to prevent all unlawful entry. The Senate approved this measure late on September 29, in a vote of 80 to 19. House and Senate negotiators agreed on September 26 to include $1.2 billion for fences and other southwest border barriers in the DHS appropriations bill for FY 2007.
Under the new voter ID bill, called the Federal Election Integrity Act and approved by the House in a 228-to-196 vote, all voters would have to present photo identification for the 2008 federal elections; by 2010, all voters would need to show photo IDs that prove their U.S. citizenship. States would be required to provide free identification cards to those who could not afford them. Similar voter ID measures have been struck down by state courts in Missouri and Georgia.
Another bill, the Community Protection Act, approved by a vote of 328 to 95, would allow for longer, or even indefinite, detention of certain unauthorized immigrants. The act runs contrary to two Supreme Court decisions barring the practice. The bill would also make gang members ineligible for entry into the United States, and allow DHS to quickly deport noncitizen immigrants suspected of gang affiliation.
Passed 277 to 140, a fourth bill would "reaffirm the existing inherent authority" of states and localities to assist in the enforcement of immigration law by identifying, apprehending, holding, or transferring immigrants to federal custody during the course of routine duties. It would also eliminate the special treatment of Salvadorans at the border, a policy called the Orantes injunction, which was instituted to counteract the widespread violation of eligible Salvadorans' right to relief from removal in the 1980s.
A final bill would impose a 20-year prison sentence for digging a tunnel under the U.S. border. Those who allow the construction of a tunnel on their property would face a 10-year sentence.
Despite his earlier calls for more comprehensive immigration reform, President Bush said he would sign the new measures into law, explaining that he sees the bills as an interim step toward a broader solution.
House leadership had called on the Senate to add provisions to target on immigrant gang activity to a defense funding bill and add other immigration enforcement measures to the DHS appropriations bill. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee refused to tack additional legislation on to the defense bill, but the Senate did attach the Border Tunnel Prevention Act to a DHS appropriations bill. The DHS bill would also delay the requirement that U.S. citizens carry passports or a new identification card when reentering from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean until June 2009. The House and Senate gave final approval to the DHS and defense spending bills late on September 29.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials say they have reduced the agency's backlog of applications for green cards, work visas, and other immigration benefits from almost four million to fewer than 140,000, but that over one million other applications remain pending, awaiting action by other agencies.
In 2003, President Bush set an October 1, 2006, deadline for the agency to eliminate its backlog of applications that had been pending for over six months.
While USCIS admits it has 1.1 million applications that have been pending for over six months, the agency defines all but 140,000 as outside USCIS control due to pending law enforcement security checks, naturalization test retakes, naturalization candidates awaiting an official ceremony, and cases where individuals have failed to respond to requests for further information.
USCIS reportedly offered employees financial incentives for speedy application processing, leading to allegations that USCIS has emphasized speed over thoroughness in the screening of applications. USCIS officials insisted that employees have continued to perform all necessary background and security checks while meeting tight production goals.
Boeing Wins Grant for Secure Border Initiative
DHS has awarded Chicago-based Boeing Co. a $2.5 billion contract to design and implement a "virtual fence" of electronic monitoring devices along the border as part of the department's Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), one component of the broader Secure Border Initiative (SBI).
Boeing was one of several companies vying for the contract. Their proposal focused on constructing 1,800 towers, ranging from 80 to 200 feet tall, along both the northern and southern borders. The towers will be equipped with cameras and heat and motion detectors, among other sensors.
Other proposals had suggested filling the sky with unmanned planes, equipping Border Patrol agents with live video images of border areas, employing blimps, or utilizing Internet mapping technology to monitor border lands.
Unlike many of the other proposals, Boeing will make only very limited use of aerial drones, which would be launched from the back of Border Patrol trucks when needed to pursue suspects. Along with proposals for new technology, Boeing will be in charge of developing new staffing and response procedures to deter illegal crossing.
SBInet replaces two failed prior attempts at using sensors and other technology to guard the border against unauthorized entry. In total, the government has spent about $429 million on unsuccessful border monitoring technology since 1997. According to a December report by the DHS inspector general, half of the 489 planned cameras were never installed. More than half of the alerts from sensors are never investigated, and of those that are, 90 percent are false alarms; just one percent lead to arrests.
Immigration experts question whether the new technologies will fare better than previous efforts, and whether funds might be better spent on a comprehensive enforcement strategy that includes worksite enforcement, better visa issuance processes, and better security checks at legal ports of entry.
Immigration Rallies. Turnout at immigration rallies held across the nation in early September fell short of organizers' expectations. About 2,000 immigrants and supporters of comprehensive reform marched in San Francisco on September 4, while about 400 marched in Los Angeles, 500 in Dallas and Houston, and 900 in Phoenix. The same day, a crowd estimated at 3,000 gathered at House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office outside of Chicago. Hastert's office was closed for Labor Day, so he was not present, according to his spokesman. A September 7 rally in Washington, DC, drew about 5,000 demonstrators, many of whom traveled from surrounding states. Some attributed the small turnout to immigrants' falling hopes in the face of stalled negotiations on comprehensive reform and increasing numbers of immigrant raids, while others said the undersized rallies reflect a loss of momentum in the immigration reform movement. Immigrant advocates said they have turned their attention from rallies to registering new immigrant voters.