A bill passed by the House of Representatives last week could put military troops side-by-side with Border Patrol agents at the U.S./Mexico border. On May 19, the House sent HR 1986 on to the Senate, and some pro-immigrant activists worry that the legislation could turn the border from migration hub to war zone.
HR 1986 authorizes the Secretary of Defense to assign members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, to assist the Department of Homeland Security with border protection functions such as preventing the entry of terrorists, drug traffickers and undocumented immigrants into the United States.
Enrique Morones, an organizer for Border Angels, a humanitarian group that leaves water and blankets in mountain and desert areas frequented by border crossers, says putting military troops at the border will only compound problems that already exist there. He also strongly opposes the Minutemen Project, an anti-illegal-immigration citizen movement in Arizona aimed at hunting down undocumented border crossers and reporting them to authorities.
"A lot of the things that organizations like Border Angels do, like putting water in the desert, is a Band-aid; it's not a solution," Morones said. "That helps people stay alive, but we need something more permanent. We need a comprehensive bill that addresses legalization and the Border Patrol. The last thing we need is the military.... or these copy-cat Minutemen Project groups on our border."
The Alliance, a coalition of San Diego community, social-justice and religious groups, along with Congressman Bob Filner, announced support for a bipartisan proposal last Thursday at the Chula Vista Police headquarters that they say would bring sanity to the border chaos.
The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act-a comprehensive immigration-reform bill authored by a group of U.S. senators including Republicans John McCain, Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe and Democrats Edward Kennedy and Luis Gutierrez-is aimed at increasing border security and putting an end to what the Minutemen Project's critics call vigilante groups.
It provides incentives for undocumented immigrants already in the country to come forward to register for a three-year H-5A temporary visa. At the end of the three-year period, migrants can opt to renew the visa for another three years or apply for residence based on a number of criteria, such as the ability to speak English and hold a steady job for more than four years.
It also establishes immigration caps on a sliding scale determined by the amount of applications by migrants per home country. These caps allot more spaces for family visas which addresses family reunification-a major contributor to illegal immigration. The bill seeks to encourage migrant workers to be socially and economically responsible as they move toward becoming permanent citizens.
While the Alliance sees the bill as a positive step toward solving immigration issues, the view from Washington is not as optimistic.
"Passing this bill is going to be very difficult with the climate in Washington," Filner said, "because all they want to do is show how tough they are by coming down hard on immigrants. People who don't live at the border don't understand our bi-national culture here-they look at the border and see terrorism, illegals and drugs. When we look at the border, we see family, jobs and culture. We have to educate people."
Filner also believes the use of military personnel on the border is not economically feasible.
"The amount of money we spend on trying to find people who are coming to work and have jobs-it's ridiculous; it's in the billions of dollars. We need to use our Border Patrol and other enforcement officers to concentrate on terrorism and other threats, rather than people looking for work. It's a lot cheaper to have that process made legal.
"They say it costs more to put people in jail than to go to Yale," he added-"same as here, it costs a lot more to view the border as a military operation opposed to a cooperative relationship."
The bill's authors would like to see it passed before the end of the 2006 Congressional session, but many who attended Thursday's press conference are pushing to fast-track the legislation to see it through before the end of 2005. They believe it will save resources and, more importantly, lives."We want to see this bill go through this year," Morones said. "If this bill would have gone through a week ago, we could have saved 17 lives, and everyday that goes by more people are dying."