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Military 'surge' for US-Mexico border

US Border Patrol agents monitor the US-Mexico border near San Diego, California, on April 4, 2013
US Border Patrol agents monitor the 'border-fence' area along the US-Mexico border near San Diego, California, across from Tijuana, Mexico on April 4, 2013.

Twenty thousand new border patrol agents, hundreds of miles of fencing, billions of dollars in drones, radar and sensors: US lawmakers are proposing a militaristic remedy to staunch illegal immigrant flow from Mexico.

The Senate is expected Monday to green-light the most important amendment yet to the landmark immigration bill, but the measure -- designed to placate Republican concerns about security -- would ensure that the border region is one of the most highly policed zones in the Western Hemisphere.

Critics call the plan "border security on steroids," while even the amendment's Republican author concedes the measures to clamp down on illegal crossings might be "overkill."

With the amendment's likely approval, the most sweeping immigration reform in nearly three decades is set for Senate passage. It then heads to the House of Representatives where it faces an uncertain fate, although optimists are hoping the bill becomes law this year.

US Border Patrol agents talk at the US-Canada border on June 3, 2013 in Beaver Island State Park, New York
US Border Patrol agents talk while at a marina on the Niagara River at the US-Canada border on June 3, 2013 in Beaver Island State Park, New York.

The goal: bring 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States, most of them Mexican, out of the shadows with a 13-year-long pathway to citizenship; reform the work visa system in agriculture and high-technology fields; and institute electronic employment verification and comprehensive entry-exit tracking.

But to boost chances for President Barack Obama to become the first US leader to enact major immigration reform since Ronald Reagan in 1986, his Democrats have increased concessions to Republicans to ensure that authorities can prevent a new wave of illegal immigrants.

Under the compromise, crafted by Republican Senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven, the number of federal border agents will surge from about 18,000 today to 38,405, the equivalent of about 19 agents per mile (12 per kilometer) along the 1,954-mile (3,200-km) border.

In 2002, there were just 10,000 assigned agents.

Lawmakers supporting the deal want the 299 miles of existing anti-vehicle barriers on non-tribal lands converted into more secure "pedestrian fencing."

US Border Patrol agents escort a group of undocumented immigrants into custody on May 20, 2013
US Border Patrol agents escort a group of undocumented immigrants into custody on May 20, 2013 near the US-Mexico border in Havana, Texas.

They also want 50 new miles of fencing put in place, for a total of 700 miles of the high fencing. Some of the fencing includes a stretch along the Rio Grande, which forms a 1,255-mile natural boundary between Mexico and the US state of Texas.

The amendment details a beefed-up arsenal of equipment with a budget of $3.2 billion for four unmanned drone systems; 40 helicopters; 30 boats; 4,595 unattended ground sensors with seismic, imaging and infrared capability; and hundreds of fixed cameras and mobile surveillance systems.

"Hundreds of American communities" militarized

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"Is it more than I would have recommended? Honestly, yes," Senator John McCain, one of four Republicans who crafted the underlying bill along with four Democrats, told Fox News on Friday. "But we've got to give people confidence."

In Washington, the "border surge" proposal is already being compared with the "surge" of US war troop reinforcements that president George W. Bush ordered to Iraq in 2007.

"That military reference makes sense because it is going to militarize hundreds of American communities in the Southwest," said veteran Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy.

A US Customs and Border Protection agent flies over the beach at the Gulf of Mexico looking for drug smugglers
A US Customs and Border Protection agent flies over the beach at the Gulf of Mexico looking for drug smugglers near the US-Mexico border on May 21, 2013 at Las Palomas Wetland Management Area, Texas.

He sneered that the border security modification "reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton," one of the nation's largest defense and energy contractors.

But the flood of protections was a primary condition some Republicans demanded for joining most of the 54 Democratic senators as they seek an overwhelming majority of 70 votes in the 100-seat chamber to give the bill momentum heading to the House.

"This is about politics, not about the facts on the ground," Doris Meissner, director of the US Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, told AFP.

Apprehension numbers are at their lowest in 40 years, she noted, thanks in part to investments made since the September 11 attacks of 2001.

But the Corker-Hoeven deal insists on dramatically ramping up the militaristic technology along the border, including use of the ominously named VADER radar -- first used to track insurgents in Afghanistan -- to find people hiding in the desert.

"It's almost overkill," Corker himself admitted.

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