Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Bush's border security plans draw praise, complaints

Feb. 4, 2008, 9:17PM
Bush's border security plans draw praise, complaints

By RICHARD S. DUNHAM

WASHINGTON — President Bush proposed Monday to increase spending on border security by 19 percent next year, a move hailed by one conservative critic as a step in the right direction but assailed by congressional Democrats as insufficient to shore up serious security lapses.

The president's budget proposal included nearly $500 million to hire 2,200 new Border Patrol agents and $2 billion over two years for fencing and high-tech surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The proposal also calls for beefed-up detention facilities near the border and for an expansion of a federal program to assist, train and coordinate with state and local law enforcement on immigration cases.

Bush also suggested expanding several programs that deal with immigrants far from the border.

He proposed spending $100 million to expand and fix glitches in the "E-Verify" system that allows employers to check electronically if potential employees are legally in the U.S. He also asked Congress to streamline the process used by companies to hire temporary workers for programs such as the H-1B visas.

Texas lawmakers praised the new enforcement measures. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said it was an example of "focusing our limited resources on national priorities."

But some officials from Texas, led by Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, said they would do everything they could to kill the president's proposal to shut down a fund that reimburses local governments for some costs of dealing with criminals from other countries.

"Border law enforcement officials and Texas taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for a job the federal government is failing to do," Cornyn said.

The planned double-digit growth in federal resources along the U.S.-Mexico border was a rare spending increase in a White House budget blueprint that squeezed most existing programs and proposed to reduce or eliminate 150 of them.

The administration said the border budget increases would allow Bush to meet his goal of doubling the size of the Border Patrol, from about 9,000 agents in 2001 to 20,000 next year.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., an outspoken critic of Bush's border enforcement efforts, said the budget "addresses many of our border security priorities."

But he and other conservatives complained that the president was not committed to building 700 miles of double-layered fencing along the Mexican border.

"I am disappointed to see that the construction of security fencing still ranks low on the administration's list of priorities," said Hunter. "It appears that the administration is content with building only 270 miles of fencing over the next year."

Hunter said the Department of Homeland Security would have about $2 billion available for fence construction, if the White House wanted to move forward.

Cornyn hailed the proposed 17 percent increase for customs and immigration enforcement.

"Securing our broken borders must be among Congress' top priorities, and this is an important downpayment on that effort," he said.

But Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Bush's proposal still fell far short of the need.

"I'm not happy with the progress the Bush administration has made on our northern and southern borders," Jackson Lee said.

She said Bush's budget plan for new customs and border protection officers was insufficient to protect cities like Houston from "the bad actors who come across the border."

And Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was critical of the president's request for just $10 million for upgrading border entry stations.

He called the request "almost insignificant compared to the need for additional security, new inspection facilities and replacement of aging infrastructure."

richard.dunham@chron.com
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

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