The Coming House Vote on Building a Berlin Wall on the Rio Grande

This week will test if Rep. McCaul's strategy of restrictionist appeasement and border security first is politically viable


How do you deal with people who won't take "yes" for an answer? That's the question that the Republican House leadership is going to confront this week.

For a decade now Republican restrictionists — egged on by radio talk show and other media hysterics — have stubbornly refused to go along with comprehensive immigration reform on the pretext that they will make no deal involving "amnesty" — or fixing any other aspects of America's broken, bureaucratic and brutal immigration system, for that matter — until and unless America's border is first fully secured. This demand is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse given that the only fool proof way of controlling illegal crossings is by creating a usable guest worker program for low-skilled workers. But they are pressing it despite the fact that unauthorized border crossings are already at their lowest level in 40 years.

Since trying to knock some sense in their heads is futile, some Republicans on the Hill have decided to go along with their irrational demands. Hence Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) jettisoned his awful stand-alone border security bill that passed his committee with unanimous bipartisan support in December and has pushed in record time an even more awful version on a strictly party line vote last week. In less than seven days, he wrote, marked and voted out of the

Berlin Wall
GothPhil / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Committee of Homeland Security, which he chairs, the Secure Our Borders First Act that will be up for a vote in the full House tomorrow or day after. The bill will mandate the Department of Homeland Security, among other things, to:

  • Implement a biometric exit system at the 15 busiest air, land and sea ports within two years and all ports within five years for all Americans — not just foreigners — who step across the border. American taxpayers will have to pony up upwards of $7 billion in down payment for the privilege of having the government track their cross-border movements. 

The Chamber of Commerce has written a scathing letter panning this requirement because the infrastructure to meet its deadline is not in place, which means huge bottlenecks for border commercial traffic and travel. The potential losses would be in the billions, it notes, given that average economic output lost per minute of border delays is around $116 million.

  • Segment the Northern and Southern border into various sectors. And it stipulates 19 different types of "technological deployments" – ground sensors, tower-based surveillance and radars – for each sector. In fact, 30 of the bill's 80-odd pages are devoted to stating the precise deployments sector-by-sector, an exercise in micro-management that is intended to squeeze out any wiggle room for the DHS to defy the bill's stipulations.
  • Within 18 months: double the areas with a double fence; build 27 miles of new fence; replace 64 miles of old fence; and construct 415 miles of access roads/gates and boat ramps to patrol the border.

So in addition to all the surveillance and sensors on the entire border as part of the "technological deployment," the bill will also put in place an actual, physical wall on a huge new portion of the border.

  • Require its Customs and Border Patrol division to implement the Consequence Delivery System — a euphemism that masks the inhumanity of a program which would impose stepped up criminal penalties for people caught illegally crossing the border. It would also potentially separate immigrant families and dump them in far-away border cities to return home so that they can't cross back again.

In order to ensure that the DHS does all of the above, the bill will throw upwards of $10 billion and create a whole new layer of bureaucratic oversight in the form of the Border Security Verification Commission. The commission's job will be to ensure that the DHS is maintaining "situational awareness" – meaning keeping track of all cross-border activity — and "operational control" — defined as stopping all unlawful entries into the United States, a virtually impossible goal in the absence of a guest worker program.  If the commission determines that the DHS hasn't delivered, then no political appointee — including presumably the secretary — will be able to receive a salary increase or bonus pay (OK — this is the good part!), or use government aircraft to attend essential trainings or conferences.

In short, the penalty for not doing an impossible task are even more penalties that will make it even more difficult to do the impossible task!

So what is the restrictionist response to this giant leap forward in creating Fortress America?


House immigration reform arsonists such as Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va) are accusing the McCaul bill of being a "Trojan Horse" for amnesty. "If you pass a bill called 'border security,' then the other side is going to say, 'Hey, look, we already did it, we passed border security, so now it's time for step two, which is amnesty– let everyone in, legalize them, because we now have a secure border."

Of course if immigration reformers don't pass a border security bill then folks like Brat will claim that "they haven't secured the border so we can't go along with any reforms." In others words, in Brat's game, its "heads I win and tails you lose."

But if Brat is busy rigging the game, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who recently issued a restrictionist manifesto declaring war on all immigrants on all fronts, is busy shifting the goal posts. He has issued a scathing statement against the McCaul bill for its failure to implement "mandatory E-Verify," "workplace enforcement,' "mandatory detention and repatriation for illegal entrants," "expedited deportation for border-crossers," "barring access for welfare," and "penalties for the Administration's continued failure to build 700 miles of double-layer border fence." Much of this is a lie and, and as McCaul has noted, also beyond the scope of his committee whose purview is only the border, not interior enforcement.

But Sessions other big criticism is that the bill does nothing to close an "asylum loophole" that, for example, has allowed unaccompanied minors fleeing drug war-related violence in South American countries to seek refuge in the United States. In other words, Sessions and his fellow restrictionists have expanded their list of conditions for coming to the table on immigration reform from not just controlling unauthorized entries — but also perfectly legal, authorized ones. They want all their demands met even before they'll negotiate which, of course, defeats the purpose of negotiations.

But restrictionists are not the only ones upset with the bill.

Most Democrats are unlikely to go along with it. But even the 26 or so moderate Republicans in the House such as Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Penn.) are afraid of voting for such a harsh stand alone bill until the House leadership firmly commits to advancing positive immigration reforms — which it hasn't done. They are afraid – completely reasonably — that they'll be stuck with a draconian bill without getting anything in return, all of which exposes the weakness of a piecemeal strategy (that I actually encouraged in my Reason piece here.)

It's an open question, notes Joshua Breisblatt of the National Immigration Forum, whether the bill will be able to draw the 218 votes necessary to pass.

If this piece of trash dies, it'll be no tragedy. But given that comprehensive immigration reform is already dead, if it doesn't pass then it is hard to see if there is any way forward on this issue till Republicans receive another big shellacking from Hispanic and minority voters.

If this bill is worth watching, it's only as a test of the House GOP leadership's ability to move the needle at all on this issue.

Update: Some readers are noting that the Berlin Wall analogy is misplaced because that wall was meant to keep people in not prevent outsiders from entering. Actually it did both. More to the point, the McCaul bill wants to create a biometric exit system to track Americans who travel outside the country.