Politics & Policy

Back to The Border

Security first.

Democrat obstruction torpedoed comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate earlier this month. At the same time, concerns about getting our border under control came into clear relief with news this week of the Department of Homeland Security’s effort to crack down on egregious violations of immigration law. It is time to both secure our borders and reform our immigration system. So next week, the Senate will act to increase funding for border security-first. And then, before the end of May, the Senate must again take up-and finish-comprehensive immigration system reform.

When it takes up the immigration reform, the Senate must address border security, worksite enforcement, and the status of the 12 million people who are currently here illegally. But to build confidence among Americans and Congress that the government takes border security seriously, we have to act to help get the border under control right now.

By Memorial Day, the president plans to sign an emergency-spending measure, which we will use to fund this next step in border security. Democrat obstructionism on the larger immigration bill, I hope, will end before that. So far it has not: Minority Leader Harry Reid has acted to block the Senate from even voting on proposals like a ban on convicted felons taking part in temporary-worker programs.

Under any circumstances, security has to come first. We don’t know how many criminals, gang members, and terrorists might have snuck across in the 20 years since Congress last made serious reforms to our immigration system. We need to know who is in our country, and why. A comprehensive immigration bill will allow all levels of law enforcement to focus on those who threaten to do us harm.

Last year, Judd Gregg and others led an effort to hire 1,500 new border patrol agents and build 1,800 new detention beds. The proposal we will consider next week provides nearly $2 billion to build a border fence in high-traffic areas, add new border-patrol aircraft to help police lower traffic areas, and support training for additional Customs and Border Protection Agents.

The Senate is also near consensus on putting nearly 15,000 new border-patrol agents in the field over the next six years. More security spending now is part of the plan. To pay for it, we will cut spending in other areas. The proposal we will consider next week helps Customs and Border Protection enforce the laws we already have. It does not, however, include any of the still necessary reforms to our immigration laws contained in the broader comprehensive package we will act on in May.

For those with deep concerns about the bigger bill, the Senate will be putting the horse before the cart. Security first. Right now. But just as the horse goes with the cart, our action now must occur in concert with finishing action on the bigger immigration bill in May. That legislation contains the full multiyear plan to beef up border-security operations dramatically, including a virtual fence that uses a mix of physical and electronic means to secure every inch of our 1,951-mile border with Mexico.

I believe that a consensus has developed in the Senate that fixing border security is as important as creating an immigrant worker program. In early April, in fact, the Senate came very close to a breakthrough: Senators Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez, along with many others, developed a fair, workable plan that would help deal with the 12 million people who are already in the United States.

Under their proposal, nobody who has violated immigration laws will get a free pass. Nearly everyone who has lived here illegally less than two years will have to return to their country of origin and apply through ordinary channels if they ever hope to live here legally. People who have lived here longer will have to pass rigorous background checks, learn English, and pay fines if they ever hope to achieve legal status.

Action now on border-security spending ought to affirm our country’s commitment to getting the border under control. Passing a comprehensive immigration bill will guarantee a sustained plan to improve border security and deal with comprehensive reform. It will honor our heritage as a nation of immigrants and our respect for the rule of law. Finally, and most importantly, it will make America safer and more secure.

Bill Frist is the U.S. Senate Majority Leader.

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