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What We Can Learn From the SBInet Fiasco

January 25, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Border surveillance equipment

When the Department of Homeland Security recently announced its cancelation of the failed SBInet program, congressional lawmakers from both sides of the isle expressed approbation.  According to a Department Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) Program, the Department has concluded that “the SBInet program, as originally proposed, does not meet current standards for viability and cost-effectiveness.”  Since its inception, SBInet has been plagued with cost overruns and technical problems.

Instead, DHS will “utilize existing, proven technology tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region.”

Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King (R-NY), expressed ambivalence at the decision to pull the plug on SBInet. He stated,

“While I understand the Department of Homeland Security decision to end the SBInet program, I continue to have serious concerns about the Obama Administration’s lack of urgency to secure the border. Since announcing a moratorium to SBInet, it has taken DHS a full year to make the final decision to cancel the program…These delays are unacceptable. The Obama Administration must promptly present the people of this country with a comprehensive plan to secure borders”.

The real problem may be that the borders are about as secure as they can be without reforms to our immigration system that provide additional legal channels through which immigrants coming to work and join family members can come to this country legally.  The facts show that the number of illegal border crossings has steadily declined under the Obama Administration.  The way immigration hardliners talk, however, the Administration is doing very little to “secure the border” or, as Representative King put it, the Administration is showing a “lack of urgency.”  They want to spend even more. 

With all the additional money being thrown into border enforcement by immigration hardliners in Congress, is it even possible to spend it effectively?

With Representative King and others pressuring the Administration to spend more on the border, it will be a challenge for the agency not to rush into new multi-million dollar security projects that won’t be effective.  SBInet cost the taxpayers approximately $1 billion over four years to monitor just 53 miles of the border in Arizona.  (The U.S.-Mexico border is 1,969 miles long.)  That is taxpayer money down the drain.  DHS’s “new path forward” will cost an additional $750 million  for the Arizona border, making it that much more important for the Department to get it right once and for all.

The agency’s record does not instill confidence.  Back in September 2008, the Washington Post reported that SBInet was just one of many failed projects at DHS.  According to testimony and figures prepared for a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Management Investigations and Oversight, the Department had racked up at least $15 billion worth of projects that were over-budget, delayed or canceled when only partially complete.

Representative King hasn’t supported legislative measures to fix the broken immigration admissions system, nor to provide the most deserving immigrants already here a legal path to citizenship.  Most recently, he voted against the DREAM Act in December.  (He has filed a bill to provide permanent residence to an individual constituent.)  

If all Congress does is look at the mistakes of SBInet in the context of how it might alternatively attempt to buy border enforcement, then we are likely to see a repetition of the wasteful spending that now plagues our border enforcement strategy.  DHS says it needs immigration reform.  It’s time Congress stopped throwing money at a failed approach.

Adam Salazar contributed to this blog post.

Image by Flickr user tomcoolinmiami.


Hispanic Leadership Conference Highlights Tug-of-War in GOP

January 23, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Tug of war

Last week, Republicans hosted a high-profile conference to reach out to Latino voters. The Hispanic Leadership Network Conference provided an opportunity for Republican presidential hopefuls and other Party leaders to address a Latino audience. 

It was also a chance for Republican Party strategists to address an issue that threatens the Party in the long term.  Many of the participants argued that, as the National Journal noted, “the GOP is the natural home for Hispanic voters, who tend to be socially conservative.” 

In the last two national elections, however, Hispanic voters overwhelmingly found their home in the Democratic Party.

Conference co-chair and Florida ex-Governor Jeb Bush summarized the problem Republicans are having in an NPR report prior to the conference:

"…we have a situation right now where Republicans send out signals that Hispanics aren't wanted in our party, not by policy so much as by tone," he says.

Former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Alfonso Aguilar, who now heads the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, noted that it’s a problem of policy as well.

Immigration ... is that one issue that prevents us from winning the support of Latino voters."

While the early outreach to Latinos is a smart move, the conference also highlighted the predicament the Republican Party is in with Latino voters.  It was telling that none of the Republican presidential hopefuls, with the exception of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, participated in the conference.  Although this was a Latino outreach event, according to the National Journal, Pawlenty stuck to his standard stump speech, steering clear of diversity issues and mentioning immigration only in the context of the “rule of law.”  He didn’t mention that he has embraced the movement among anti-immigration hard-liners to change the 14th Amendment to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented parents.

Some participants, who did address the issue, blamed Democrats for the lack of progress on immigration reform. As Andrea Nill noted over at the Center for American Progress, Senator John Cornyn of Texas went so far as to blame President Obama for breaking his promise on immigration reform, and portrayed himself as a champion of immigration reform.

One small detail: during the entire course of the 111th Congress, Cornyn showed no sign of breaking with his colleagues who promised to filibuster reform, and when a bill finally did make it to the floor of the Senate (the DREAM Act), only three Republican Senators voted to end the filibuster against it.  Cornyn was not one of them. 

This display of a profound lack of any sense of personal responsibility is bizarre.  It is not as if the Latino community was not paying attention to who was standing in the way of immigration reform.  When the Senate voted on the DREAM Act at the end of the last Congress, the vote was broadcast live on Spanish-language television networks.

Other conference attendees kept their immigration views to themselves.  Florida’s new Governor Rick Scott welcomed the group, but did not mention that he has vowed to work to pass a law modeled on Arizona’s controversial and anti-Latino SB 1070.

Former Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart summed it up best when he said that,

“If we become perceived as an anti-immigrant party, America, being a country of immigrants, will never allow us to be the majority party.”

For the immediate future, prospects are not good for the Republican Party to appear more welcoming.  Republicans in Congress have already introduced a slew of bills to crack down on undocumented immigrants and to further fortify the border.  Some examples:

Immigration Subcommittee Co-Chair Steve King has a bill (H.R. 140) to deny citizenship to children born of undocumented parents. 

Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has introduced a bill (the CLEAR Act of 2011) that would give state and local law enforcement the power to enforce immigration laws and would deny federal funding to localities that have community policing policies in place where officers don’t inquire about immigration status.

Representative Ted Poe of Texas has a bill (H.R. 153) requiring the deployment of 10,000 additional National Guard on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration hardliners Chair the Immigration Subcommittee and the full Judiciary Committee, and we expect to see a series of hearings that focus exclusively on enforcement, leaving the problem of the broken immigration system for someone else to discuss.

The Hispanic outreach conference was a good effort, but it will soon be forgotten as the news turns to those in the GOP who continue to do everything they can to make the Republican Party appear unwelcoming to Latinos.

Image by Flickr user toffehoff.

Immigration Reform

House Subcommittee to Hold First Hearing

January 21, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

As we outlined in a previous update, the 112th Congress is going to be considerably less immigrant-friendly than the previous Congress.  In the House, both the Immigration Subcommittee and its parent Committee, the Judiciary Committee, will be chaired by immigration hardliners. 


In our previous update, we said that Iowa Republican Steve King would Chair the Immigration Subcommittee.  That was based on the fact that, in the 111th Congress, King was the highest-ranking member of the Immigration Subcommittee.  However, on January 7, Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith appointed Elton Gallegly of California to Chair the Immigration Subcommittee.  There was speculation in the press that Rep. King was too controversial given his intemperate remarks about immigrants.  The appointment of Gallegly may have been a nod to the concerns of Republicans with a long-term interest in party preservation and the need to attract more Latino voters.  In practice, both men are immigration hardliners.  King will be the Subcommittee’s co-chair.


Other members of the Subcommittee include:


Republicans:   Dan Lungren (CA), Louie Gohmert (TX), Ted Poe (TX), Trey Gowdy (SC), and Dennis Ross (FL).


Democrats:  Zoe Lofgren (CA, Ranking Member), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX), Maxine Waters (CA), and Pedro R. Pierluisi (PR).


We expect the Subcommittee to hold a series of hearings focusing exclusively on enforcement, with little if any attention paid to fixing America’s broken immigration system.  The first hearing will be on Wednesday, January 26.  That hearing will focus on worksite enforcement.


SB 1070-Style Bill Would Make Illinois’ Fiscal Crisis Worse

January 19, 2011 - Posted by Mario Moreno

The state of Illinois is making big news these days for the drastic measures its lawmakers are taking to regain control of the state budget that is in the red.  Last week, Governor Pat Quinn and lawmakers approved a raise in taxes on incomes and businesses.  Their actions have been openly ridiculed by other governors who say they will gladly welcome the businesses that may leave Illinois due to the tax hike. 


Like many other states, Illinois is facing a multibillion dollar deficit—a $15 billion shortfall to be exact, including $8 billion in unpaid bills to social service agencies, hospitals, and schools.  Reports also indicate that the state had the lowest credit rating in the nation. 


As bad as the state’s fiscal situation is now, some Illinois lawmakers will be pushing for an Arizona SB 1070-style law (HB 6937) to crack down on undocumented immigrants.  If the effort succeeds, it could make the state’s fiscal crisis considerably worse.


Directly impacting the state’s budget would be the cost of litigating and implementing the law.  A recent report indicates that a state neighboring Illinois, Kentucky, could pay $40 million a year in court, prison, and foster-care costs associated with its proposed version of the Arizona law. 


More significantly, there is the collateral damage associated with the law.  SB 1070 has already cost Arizona’s tourism industry $253 million in economic output, more than $86 million in lost wages, and about 2,800 lost jobs as a result of boycotts.


For Illinois, immigrant workers are essential to the economy. According to reports, the state would lose more than $25 billion in economic activity if all undocumented immigrants were removed.  Also, immigrant consumers add more than $65 billion to the state economy and immigrant entrepreneurs employ more than 150,000 people in Illinois.  Not all economic activity from immigrants would cease, but driving out undocumented immigrants also means driving out their family members—some of whom are legal residents or citizens, so the impact goes beyond just the economic activity of undocumented immigrants.


With a budget deficit of $15 billion, including $8 billion in unpaid bills, a harsh immigration enforcement measure is something Illinois cannot afford.  Lawmaker should instead focus their energies on how to maximize the proven valuable economic contributions that immigrants have made to the state.


To read more about the Illinois budget cuts, the economic power of immigrants in Illinois, and the potential impact of an SB 1070-style law, please see the links below.



Hate in the Debate: Let’s Take a Step Back

January 11, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


 flag at half mast

In the wake of the weekend shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six people at her constituent event in Tucson, there has been a lot of commentary about the need to tone down the vitriol that has infused our political discourse. 

Giffords herself espoused that view in March, after her Tucson office was vandalized in the wake of her vote on the health care bill.  As E.J. Dionne noted in the Washington Post, Giffords spoke of her concern about way some politicians and others have of “firing people up.”

“When people do that, they've got to realize there's consequences to that action." 

She noted that some of her colleagues, 20- and 30-year veterans in Congress, told her they had “never seen it like this.” 

Indeed, during last year’s campaign season, more than 130 former Members of Congress signed an open letter to all candidates running for Congressional office.  In the letter, they deplore the state of our political system, in which “Congress appears gripped by zero-sum game partisanship.”

“The divisive and mean-spirited way debate often occurs inside Congress is encouraged and repeated outside: on cable news shows, in blogs and in rallies. Members who far exceed the bounds of normal and respectful discourse are not viewed with shame but are lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances, and enlisted as magnets for campaign fund-raisers.

Meanwhile, lawmakers who try to address problems and find workable solutions across party lines find themselves denigrated by an angry fringe of partisans, people unhappy that their representatives would even deign to work with the enemy.”

These former Members of Congress urge all candidates “to conduct campaigns for Congress with decency and respect toward opponents….”

Arizona has been particularly infected with violent and hateful rhetoric.  The immigration debate has provided plenty of fuel for extremists bent on demonizing their opponents.  For example, during a rally to support Arizona’s SB 1070, Barbara Coe, from the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, urged those in the crowd to call their representatives and let them know they support the law.  She then went on to say,

“It is now our responsibility to stand up and be counted.  This is our turning point. The traitors have underestimated the power of Americans. No mas. … God forbid it should come to this but if it should come to this, lock and load.”

Judge John Roll, one of the six people killed on Saturday, made a controversial ruling in an immigration-related case in 2009.  Talk radio shows “fired up” their audience and the judge received so many death threats against him and his family that he was briefly put under 24-hour protection by U.S. Marshalls.

The young man who shot and killed the six people in Tucson Saturday appears to have been seriously unstable.  It is not possible to make a direct connection between Arizona’s toxic political environment and his act, but as the New York Times editorialized on Sunday, he is

“very much a part of a widespread squall of fear, anger and intolerance that has produced violent threats against scores of politicians and infected the political mainstream with violent imagery.”

Commenting on the threats faced by federal employees and politicians in recent years, Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association said,

"Policy differences are one thing; violent imagery in their service is another." 

Very true.  What we are talking about, ultimately, are different policy choices, with differences of opinion on the best choice for the nation and its people—whether it be health care reform, immigration reform, or reforms proposed to solve any number of tough problems facing the nation.  There is no room for hate in a policy debate.

Jim Kolbe, who represented Arizona’s 8th Congressional District prior to Gabrielle Giffords, underlined this point, telling NPR over the weekend,

“I would advise Americans to lower the tone. I think we need to have a more civil discourse. We need to have greater respect for each other. We need to understand that people in political office, while we disagree with them, they're trying for the most part - they try to do their very best, and that we need to have some respect for those who are willing to put themselves out there and run for political office.”

It is not a problem of partisan politics; it is a problem of the extremes.  When the extremes become so loud that we forget what the debate is about, as Ms. Giffords said back in March,

“…leaders - community leaders, not just political leaders - have to stand back … and say, 'Whoa, let's take a step back here.' "

It’s time to take that step.  Today, members of both parties in Congress are thinking about the implications of what happened over the weekend.  Let’s hope that, when they return to business, they will have their vigorous policy debates with a little more attention to the consequences of infusing the debate with hate.


Immigration Reform

Is Border Security a Fiscal Black Hole?

January 07, 2011 - Posted by Mario Moreno

Fiscal black hole


With the convening of a new Congress, both the public and the media are anxious to see how it will eventually unfold and what legacy, if any, it will leave behind.


Topic A for the new majority in Congress has been federal spending and the need to reduce it.  They vow an end to the spending that had been approved in the last Congress in the name of economic recovery.  Despite their philosophical differences in government spending overall, however, both parties throw fiscal restraint out the window when it comes to border security.  The result has been billions of dollars pumped into border security programs that haven’t yielded sustainable results nor have they been guided by a clear vision.


For example, in 2006, Congress allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for SBInet, a “virtual” fence that would use technology to detect border crossers.  However, in 2008 DHS and Congress decided to divert funding for SBInet to other programs after determining there were widespread malfunctions that made SBInet ineffective—an appraisal that should have been conducted prior to wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.


When discussing border enforcement funding with NPR this September, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona noted that lawmakers simply “have to guess at it and just say, ‘OK, here, we’ll give you $50 million.  How much will that do?” This is exactly what Congress did in August of last year—allocating well over $600 million in border supplemental spending that included another increase in border personnel and $32 million for two unmanned air-surveillance drones.  This measure sailed through both Congressional chambers without any hearings or studies being conducted. 


The new majority in Congress has given every indication that it wants to spend even more money on border enforcement.  When it comes to spending on the border, Republicans forget that they have been screaming about FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY for the last two years.  They have only vaguely referred to a strategy that will tackle both border security and the reforms necessary in the immigration system to allow enforcement resources to be deployed effectively.  


Although Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reported this week that he will “focus on wasteful spending” in areas such as Medicare fraud and food safety, he has steered clear of mentioning any pending investigations into border- or security-related spending.  In their “Pledge to America,” Republicans promise not to fix our broken immigration system, but only that they will “ensure that the Border Patrol has the tools and authority to establish operational control at the border.”   Representative Peter King (R-NY), in his list of priorities as the incoming Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee with oversight responsibility for the Department of Homeland Security, made no mention of fixing an immigration system that is fundamentally broken.  Instead, he has talked about “enacting additional border security legislation to curb illegal immigration,” as well as additional spending for yet more border security staffing, fencing and technology.


In the same Pledge where they promise more spending on the border, Republicans vow to “establish a hard cap on new discretionary spending,” going so far as to say “there is no reason to wait to reduce wasteful and unnecessary spending” and that “we must put common-sense limits on the growth of government and stop the endless increases.”  Perhaps as the new Congress considers shrinking government, it will begin putting more thought into the billions of dollars spent annually on border security efforts that lack justification, let alone a comprehensive approach.


Last November, the Center for American Progress and the Department of Defense’s Under Secretary, Ashton B. Carter, outlined ten strategies that could realistically save the federal government more than $50 billion per year on defense-related spending.  They cited “determining what to buy” as the biggest problem plaguing government procurement.  No longer should Congress estimate or simply throw $50 million at a problem and see how far that gets us, as with Senator Kyl’s approach to border security.  Rather, precision, calculation and foresight should be incorporated into decisions about security spending.  Changing the way law-makers spend on defense could potentially save billions of tax-payer dollars and quickly weed out security programs that do not work.  This kind of approach is sorely needed in the border enforcement arena.


The next Congressional session will be a test—a test as to whether genuine fiscal restraint and intelligent allocation of resources will bring some coherence to our approach to border enforcement, or whether law makers will continue to raid the tax-payer’s pocket book to throw money into the black hole that has become border security.


Image: iStockphoto/Marcopolo9442.


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