Michigan's Miller pushes for stronger U.S. borders

Jul 1, 2013 Issues: Defense and Homeland Security

As Senate bill hits House hurdle lawmaker crafts different approach

Washington— While the Senate’s immigration reform legislation is being discarded by GOP leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Michigan lawmaker is building support for a border security plan Republicans consider critical for any reform package to get approved in that body.

The bill, overseen by U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, won unanimous bipartisan passage recently in the Homeland Security Committee where she is vice chairwoman. It develops a plan to secure U.S. borders, set accountability measurements and create a benchmark of two years for high-traffic areas to be 90 percent secured. It differs with the legislation the Senate approved Thursday.

Miller said her legislation — the first immigration-related bill to pass a House committee — could be the basis for the House to take up an issue that causes divisions in the party.

“I think a majority of Americans feel the very foundation of any immigration reform must be securing our borders,” said Miller, chairwoman of the subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.

President Barack Obama has argued the country should create a pathway for citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, among other changes. The Senate legislation, passed by bipartisan support, would allow for citizenship after 13 years for undocumented immigrants following background checks and the payment of back taxes and fees.

Many House Republicans want proof that border security measures are working before dealing with the legal status of undocumented immigrants — something the Senate bill doesn’t require. Instead, the bill from the Democratic-controlled Senate would spend $46 billion to add nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents, complete 700 miles of fence and install high-tech monitoring devices along the southern border with Mexico.

Miller on Thursday rejected the Senate’s border security approach.

“The bill that passed the Senate today spends billions of dollars to provide the illusion that the border is being secured,” she said Thursday, “but provides no verifiable metrics to judge whether or not that money is being used effectively and the border is actually secure.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the border is far stronger today than at any point in history. The number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled since 2004, up to more than 21,000 — with about 87 percent of them stationed along the southern border.

Miller said she remains “open” to immigration reform. Some Republicans reject a pathway to citizenship for the immigrants because the lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, consider it amnesty.

Bentivolio, R-Milford, has argued the U.S.-Mexico border should be secured first. “They (undocumented immigrants) get citizenship and within months of getting citizenship they start inviting the rest of their family,” he said earlier this year.

Friction in the House

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week he won’t let immigration reform come to the House floor for a vote without the majority support of his GOP members and wants the House to develop its own plan.. A Boehner spokesman praised Miller’s proposal as “certainly better” than the Senate plan.

But other parts of the controversial issue are fueling discord from House Democrats. The House Judiciary Committee approved last month in a 20-15 vote a bill letting states enforce immigration laws. The top Judiciary Democrat, U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, decried the legislation as a recipe for racial profiling similar to Arizona’s 2010 law that empowered local police to check immigration status of people it detains.

“Rather than embrace the bipartisan spirit that is driving the passage of comprehensive immigration reform closer to reality in the Senate, my House Republican colleagues have brought forth a cruel, uncompromising bill that that returns the immigration debate to partisan solutions that have failed in the past,” Conyers said.

Pro-immigration reform Democrats have found solace in Miller’s approach and a bipartisan group of seven House members — three Republicans and four Democrats, none from Michigan — are devising their own immigration plan.

Defining security

There is wide agreement on securing the borders, but differences exist over how to measure it and whether meeting benchmarks should trigger a process to gain citizenship.

The Senate bill calls for 90 percent control of the southern border, a mandatory employment verification system and electronic checks at international air and sea ports to track travelers leaving the country. But it does not require meeting all targets to trigger the legalization process.

In February 2011, the independent Government Accountability Office found 44 percent of the nearly 2,000 miles of southern border were at an acceptable level of control and less than 2 percent of the northern border’s nearly 4,000 miles were controlled.

The Detroit border with Canada includes 863 miles of shoreline and, according to some officials, faces potential threats from criminal organizations, including terrorists, as well as smugglers of drugs and people. Detroit is home to the busiest single crossing on the northern border with the Ambassador Bridge.

Miller’s legislation directs Homeland Security to develop a strategy to secure the border within 180 days. Within two years, high-traffic areas including Detroit would need to be 90 percent under operational control and within five years the entire southern border would need to meet the target.

Miller said she recognizes the progress made along the southern and northern borders — including the installation of surveillance cameras along the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair. What’s lacking, she said, is agreement on a common standard to measure success.

“What we have failed to do thus far,” Miller said, “is to put in place a metric to judge the effectiveness of our efforts.”