Rather than taking up the Senate’s Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744), the House has chosen to take a piece-by-piece approach to immigration reform, with five separate bills currently up for consideration, each seeking to address a specific challenge within the nation’s broken immigration system. While this approach should be applauded, the devil, of course, is in the details.
The Border Security Results Act of 2013 (H.R. 1417) is one of the five bills that the House is considering. Regrettably, H.R. 1417 calls for misguided border security metrics and potentially opens the door for amnesty. The goal of any immigration reform effort should recognize that it should not end in comprehensive legislation or blanket amnesty. Instead, meaningful reform should offer practical and effective solutions.
Right Path Toward Reform
The stepping-stone strategy employed by the House of Representatives is the ideal path forward to ensuring that the array of different issues surrounding the immigration conversation equally receive open and honest debate. However, as the House proceeds, Representatives should remain cautious that House legislation not become a vehicle for amnesty.
If S. 744 is conferenced with any House-passed measure, it could be used as a vehicle toward backdoor dealings among conferees, almost ensuring the implementation of undesirable measures laid out in the Senate bill. As seen in the past, conference committees can often result in sacrificing good policies and principles and including harmful ones in the name of compromise.
With ever-increasing pressures from both sides of the political aisle to produce any type of final product, H.R. 1417, specifically, could become the Corker–Hoeven of the House, a hollow and flawed bill that does not actually secure the border. Indeed, H.R. 1417 could be used to give lawmakers the cover they need to justify amnesty.
Border Security Results Act of 2013
First introduced by Congressman Michael McCaul (R–TX) in April of this year, H.R. 1417 seeks to require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “to develop a comprehensive strategy to gain and maintain operation control of the international borders of the United States.” Specifically, the bill would require the DHS Secretary to:
- Regularly report on the state of situational awareness and operational control along both U.S. borders;
- Submit a comprehensive strategy and implementation plan for “gaining and maintaining” situational awareness and operational control in “high traffic areas” along both borders within two years and the entire southwest border within five years;
- Develop metrics for measuring the effectiveness of security measures along both land and maritime borders; and
- Certify that operational control and situational awareness has been achieved in high-traffic areas within two years and along the entire southwest border within five years.
In all, the bill would impose at least 10 new reports to Congress on DHS, half of which would be reoccurring.
In discussing the bill, Congressman McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, explained:
This is the next step in ensuring DHS finally produced a strategy to secure the border.… Once in place, the strategy and implementation plan will determine how we apply the researches we sent to the border…and ensure we are only putting taxpayer dollars towards what works, with a clear goal in mind.
Chairman McCaul is correct in that simply throwing resources at the border is not the solution. But neither is prescribing imperfect metrics, empty certifications, and endless reporting requirements. While many of the bill’s requirements may look good on paper, the reality is that the situation and threats along the border are ever changing. Even where metrics can be reliably established today, they may be meaningless tomorrow. The same is true regarding any attempt to certify that the border is secure.
At the same time, H.R. 1417 would also require the Secretary to put forth a plan, within 180 days, for immediate implementation of a biometric system to track when foreign visitors and visa holders leave the country. This requirement, which would entail recording the biometric data of individuals (most often fingerprints) to verify their departure, has been on the books for nearly two decades and has yet to be implemented—in large part because the means to implement such a system on a large scale simply do not exist.
Biographical data (such as name, date of birth, and country of origin) provide suitable information for most enforcement activities at a much lower cost and burden. Moreover, simply determining that individuals have not exited the U.S. means little without the ability to locate and remove them. None of these matters is likely to change within the next six months.
Meaningful Security over Misguided Metrics
While Chairman McCaul and his colleagues in the House should be applauded for taking a piece-by-piece approach to immigration reform, fixing the nation’s border security challenges does not require complicated but meaningless metrics. In fact, implementing the measures needed to build a secure and productive border would not require new legislation. These include:
- Constructing the right border security infrastructure to both inhibit illegal border activity and encourage cross-border commerce;
- Supporting local law enforcement through grants administered by Operation Stonegarden;
- Working with Mexico and Canada through cooperative programs, such as the Border Enforcement Security Task Force teams;
- Encouraging the formation and operation of organized and accountable volunteers, such as State Defense Forces;
- Supporting the National Guard and Coast Guard; and
- Ensuring that Customs and Border Protection has the technology it needs to identify illegal border crossings.
All of the measures that could help secure the border can be achieved under existing law by faithfully fulfilling existing mandates on border security and following the regular order of congressional appropriations.
The Wrong Way Forward
With hollow metrics and the potential to serve as a trigger for amnesty, H.R. 1417 fails to address U.S. border security challenges. A meaningful step-by-step approach to immigration reform entails getting border security right by strengthening the enforcement of existing laws, appropriately investing in security infrastructure and resources, and enhancing cooperation with state and local governments, as well as with Mexico and Canada.
—Jessica Zuckerman is Policy Analyst for the Western Hemisphere in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.