Congressman John Barrow has been on the U.S.-Mexico border to get a first-hand look at the nation’s illegal immigration problems.
The Savannah Democrat was one of a handful of Congressmen who spent the early part of the week touring the Arizona-Texas boundary with Mexico, seeing “what the men and women who defend our southern border are up against and what they need in order to do a better job.”
Barrow and his Capitol Hill cohorts spent the first part of their visit in the Nogales, Ariz., area and followed up with a day and a half in the El Paso, Texas, region.
“It’s been very enlightening,” he said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning.
Barrow lauded the professionalism and dedication of the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Customs agents who man the almost 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico.
“They are rising to the challenge, and we need to give them the resources they need,” he said.
Those resources are three-fold — tactical infrastructure, “that’s a fancy word for a fence,” Barrow said, technology and legislation. Barrow concedes that a fence won’t stop all crossings but could slow enough down to allow agents to respond to a crossing. It also isn’t feasible in some spots to put up a fence.
That’s where the technology would come in, with motion detectors, seismic sensors and forward looking infrared cameras.
“It’s a great force multiplier,” he said, meaning fewer agents can patrol more ground. But fewer agents isn’t the answer, either.
“We need more people,” Barrow said. “Fences and technology won’t do. We need more boots on the ground, more badges on the border.”
The border force has grown from 10,000 to 15,000 and there are 3,000 on the way. Barrow is the co-sponsor of a bill that would put another 8,000 guards on the border. He also backs a measure by North Carolina Democrat Heath Shuler, the former University of Tennessee and Washington Redskins quarterback turned Congressman, called the SAVE Act, or the Secure America through Verification and Employment Act.
The bill would expand the E-Verify program that allows employers to see if their workers are in the country legally.
If enacted, SAVE would go in over four years, starting with the federal government, federal contractors and employers with more 250 workers. It also would give the government more muscle in enforcing current laws and to penalize offenders.
“We would crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants,” Barrow said.
Progress on the front line is sure but slow, he said. Before the 9/11 attacks, most of the nation wasn’t aware of the illegal immigration problem. By some estimates, there are as many as 14 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and as many as 400,000-500,000 entering every year.
“These folks coming in illegally represent the greatest challenge to our state and local infrastructure,” Barrow said, pointing to their use of hospitals and medical facilities with little if any reimbursement to the health care system.
“They represent a direct threat to the value of labor.”
At the professional level, the U.S. is getting help. But not from higher up in the Mexican government, according to Barrow.
“There’s very little appreciation on the other side,” he said. “The government of Mexico is insulted by our defending our border. They are conducting a media campaign. We believe in the value of immigration, but in the value of legal immigration.”
Much of what is earned in the U.S. by illegal immigrants gets sent back to their families in Mexico. A lot of what is coming across the border into the U.S., aside from the people, is also illicit.
“We have been present when someone was nabbed who was wanted for murder,” Barrow said, adding the Congressmen were there when border agents also found $30,000 in $20 bills and also caught people red-handed trying to cross the Rio Grande.
“This is a very big problem,” Barrow said, “and we’ve got to devote the resources to address it.”