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Building a Human Wall on the Border
Are 20,000 new agents, proposed by the Gang of Eight, the best way to go?


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Andrew Stiles

Thanks to the last-minute “border surge” amendment tacked on to the Gang of Eight immigration-reform bill, the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) stands to nearly double its membership. They must be thrilled. Right?

Not exactly.

“I’m not sure where this idea came from, but we didn’t support it, and we didn’t ask for it,” Shawn Moran, the NBPC’s at-large vice president, tells National Review Online. “No one consulted us prior to this coming up. We don’t even have the infrastructure to handle 40,000 agents right now.”

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The NBPC is an AFL-CIO–affiliated union representing more than 17,000 border-patrol agents and support staff. If the bill that passed the Senate last week becomes law, the number of border-patrol agents would nearly double, from about 21,000 to 40,000. The union has not taken a public position on the Gang of Eight legislation, opting instead to “work behind the scenes,” Moran says. But the union has “serious concerns” with the bill that it hopes the House of Representatives will resolve.

Aides to Senators Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R., N.D.), the lawmakers who authored the border-surge amendment, did not deny that the NBPC was not consulted. “We felt we needed to craft an amendment — that was authorized and appropriated up front — that would produce a surge of resources at the southern border to give us and the American people a high degree of confidence that the border would be secured,” a Corker aide tells NRO. An aide to Senator Hoeven notes that he sought the advice of the chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, as well as the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “They said more fencing, more boots on the ground, and electronic surveillance [were needed],” the aide says.

Many of the bill’s supporters touted the massive personnel increase — 20,000 new agents who must be trained and deployed within ten years — as the most stringent border-security measure in the history of borders. Gang of Eight member Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said the Corker-Hoeven amendment “practically militarizes the border” and is the toughest possible solution “short of shooting everybody that comes across.” Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said it would “create a virtual human fence.”

“I can tell you from 30 years of being on the border, this bill secures the border, and anyone who says it doesn’t does not understand our security needs,” said Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.)

Others, however, were more skeptical about the plan. “If you’re asking me about the merits of this proposal, I think it’s overkill,” said Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill.). Either way, it was good enough from a political standpoint to advance the Gang of Eight bill, which passed the Senate last week by a 68–32 margin.

Moran, for his part, is not convinced that doubling the number of border-patrol agents is an effective way to prevent illegal immigration. “If the goal is to build a human wall, then I guess that’s a step in the right direction,” he says. “It all depends on what kind of strategy they use.” The NBPC has argued, instead, that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to “take the handcuffs” off the border-patrol agents currently in the field. “We’ve never been allowed to fully enforce the immigration laws, and if we did that, we think it would have a dramatic impact on illegal immigration,” Moran says.

The NBPC supported an amendment from Senator Jon Tester (D., Mont.) that would have reformed the way border-patrol agents are paid, offering greater flexibility with respect to shift changes and overtime pay, among other changes. That would have been a cheaper and more efficient way to increase security on the border, Moran argues. That amendment, however, never received a vote. The union is currently negotiating with the Obama administration in an effort to resolve its concerns about agent pay, as well as certain budget cuts blamed on sequestration. Some opponents of the Gang of Eight bill suspect that these negotiations may explain the NBPC’s reluctance to publicly oppose the legislation.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a strong opponent of the Gang of Eight proposal, says the NBPC’s skepticism highlights the absurdly political nature of the Corker-Hoeven amendment, the only purpose of which, he argues, was to push the bill across the legislative finish line. “They just pulled that 20,000 number out of a hat,” Krikorian says. “They should have just said we’re going to add a million border patrol agents and arm them with photon torpedoes.”

The Gang of Eight’s decision to back the Corker-Hoeven amendment was rather peculiar, given the scorn its supporters had heaped on an earlier proposal from Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas), which called for an additional 5,000 — not 20,000 — border-patrol agents. That would have been too expensive, Cornyn’s opponents argued, just days before embracing the Corker-Hoeven border-surge proposal, along with its price tag of $30 billion. It was all “paid for” with projected savings, about $200 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The NBPC was the only one of three major unions representing immigration law-enforcement officers not to publicly oppose the Gang of Eight bill prior to its passage in the Senate. The leaders of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council (ICE) and the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council (USCIS) issued a joint statement last week denouncing the Gang’s plan as an “anti–law enforcement bill” that “will make Americans less safe and . . . ensure more illegal immigration.”

Opponents of the Gang of Eight bill are not convinced that opposition from the NBPC would have had a significant impact on the outcome of the debate in the Senate, but they admit that the union’s silence is curious.

As it turns out, the Corker-Hoeven amendment contains a number of provisions that would specifically benefit border-patrol agents. For example, the revised version of the bill increases the caps on student-loan repayment benefits for full-time, active-duty border-patrol agents. It also stipulates that the DHS secretary’s authority to pay bonuses for the recruitment, relocation, and retention of DHS employees, which would include the 20,000 new border-patrol agents called for in the bill, is to be “exercised to the fullest extent . . . allowable in order to encourage service in the Department of Homeland Security.”

“Our lobbyists and our legislative committee are in D.C. pretty much full time trying to correct problems,” Moran says. Now that the House has begun work on its own version of Gang of Eight, these immigration-reform proponents are hoping that lawmakers in the House, unlike their Senate counterparts, will welcome their input.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.



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