Is the Senate's Immigration Bill a Civil Liberties Nightmare? Depends on Who You Ask.


Courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Since the Senate passed its immigration bill on Thursday, a number of immigrant advocacy groups have dropped their support for the legislation. According to The Atlantic's Molly Ball, the Border Center for Human Rights called the Senate bill "a promise of abuse, violation and death," and 18 Million Rising said the bill will "exacerbate…the climate of fear created by criminalization and overreaching surveillance."

The source of their discontent is the 11th-hour Hoeven-Corker amendment, designed to placate immigration hard-liners who want reform to be contingent on securing the border. According to Republican Sen. John Hoeven's website, the amendment guarantees

  • An unprecedented surge of an additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents are deployed, maintained and stationed along the southern border, more than doubling the current force.
  • The Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy is deployed and operational, which includes, at a minimum, full implementation and activation of the $4.5 billion in specific technology and equipment requested by the Border Patrol to achieve full surveillance of the border.
  • The Southern Border Fencing Strategy has been implemented, and at least 700 miles of fencing has been completed along the southern border. (There are 350 miles of pedestrian fencing already deployed along the southern border. This amendment would double that and ensure a total of 700 miles of fencing along the border.)
  • The mandated electronic visa entry/exit system has been fully implemented at all air and sea ports of entry where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers are currently deployed, which will improve the identification of those who overstay their visas.
  • E-Verify is being used by all employers in the country, making it virtually impossible to work in the United States illegally.

Defense News reports on the specific goodies that the Senate bill will fund (and alludes to DHS's leeway in buying additional gear): 

[F]our more drones on top of the 10 that the CBP already flies, 30 marine vessels, 17 more Huey helicopters, 10 converted and five new Black Hawk helicopters, and hundreds of ground sensors, and fixed and mobile surveillance systems.

The amendment also calls for sophisticated surveillance gear that has proven itself on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It requests eight VADER (Vehicle Dismount and Exploitation Radar) systems for manned and unmanned aircraft.

The National Guard is also asked to provide additional drones and helicopters for use along the border, and to man road checkpoints in southwestern states.

Even with these expensive goals, the Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano "is being given pretty wide leeway to field these systems or buy other systems" if they're found to be more effective, Christopher Wilson, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Mexico Institute said.

Pro-immigrant groups aren't alone in sensing a threat to civil liberties. Last week the Libertarian Party of Florida tweeted its opposition, saying, "We don't want war zones, drones, National ID, surveillance & more big gov agents." And today former Rep. Ron Paul compared the bill's E-Verify provision–which makes the program mandatory and universal–to NSA spying:

It is not inconceivable that, should this bill pass, the day may come when you are not be able to board an airplane or exercise your second amendment rights without being run through the E-Verify database. It is not outside the realm of possibility that the personal health care information that will soon be collected by the IRS and shared with other federal agencies as part of Obamacare will also be linked to the E-Verify system.

Those who dismiss these concerns as paranoid should consider that the same charges were leveled at those who warned that the PATRIOT Act could lead to the government collecting our phone records and spying on our Internet usage. Just as the PATRIOT Act was only supposed to be used against terrorists but is now used to bypass constitutional protections in matters having noting to do with terrorism or national security, the national ID/mandatory E-Verify database will not only be used to prevent illegal immigrants from gaining employment. Instead, it will eventually be used as another tool to monitor and control the American people.

The recent revelations of the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans, plus recent stories of IRS targeting Tea Party and similar groups for special scrutiny, demonstrates the dangers of trusting government with this type of power. Creation of a federal database with photos and possibly other "biometric" information about American citizens is a great leap forward for the surveillance state. All Americans who still care about limited government and individual liberty should strongly oppose E-Verify.

Other civil liberties advocates think the Senate bill is, on the whole, a good one. "The good portions of this immigration reform bill still outweigh the bad but we cannot afford too many more Hoeven-Corker amendments," Cato's Alex Nowrasteh wrote last month. The ACLU's Laura W. Murphy said in a June 27 press release that despite the Hoeven-Corker amendment, "the bill will make a real, substantive difference to the lives of millions of aspiring citizens."

Murphy hopes to remove the "border surge" language from the final bill:

"Over the coming weeks, the ACLU will pursue every avenue to have the problematic new border surge language removed, and to make other civil liberties improvements, before the bill heads to President Obama's desk. The ACLU will continue to work with the House to adopt legislation that will not compromise civil liberties and will provide a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who contribute every day to the vitality of our country. We're confident that continued public pressure will be instrumental in forcing the House to move forward on immigration reform."

That seems like a longshot considering what Rep. John Boehner has said thus far.