By LAURA B. MARTINEZ/The Brownsville Herald
A bill named after fallen ICE Special Agent Jaime J. Zapata, which aims to enhance border security, is another step closer to becoming law.
The Jaime Zapata Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) Act of 2011 on Wednesday was voted out of the House Committee on Homeland Security and now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote. It is expected to be presented to the House later this year and to the U.S. Senate shortly after, officials said.
The bill, introduced by U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Michael McCaul, R-Austin, aims to improve border security, in part by giving Congress the ability to directly oversee appropriation of funds for enforcement units on the border.
Such units, part of what is already called the BEST initiative, currently operate under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Our country lost ICE Special Agent Jaime Zapata in the line of duty, and out of respect for his service to America, I found it proper and fitting to file legislation that would enhance border security operations on our borders and name it after and American hero — Jaime Zapata,” Cuellar said in a press release.
Zapata, 32, a native of Brownsville, worked for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was killed in February in Mexico in an attack by suspected members of the Zetas drug cartel. Victor Avila, a fellow agent, was wounded in the attack. At least two suspected Zeta members have been arrested in connection with Zapata’s death.
At Wednesday’s House Homeland Security Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., Cuellar said there are currently 21 BEST units operating across the United States and Mexico.
“(They) have an impressive record of stopping the drugs and other contraband coming into the United States,” he said.
“Seeing these BEST teams in operation, they are very effective and I think we just need to expand it and that is precisely what this legislation does. Stopping the flow of cash and weapons going southbound is critically important in this war against the drug cartels,” McCaul said.
The bill would strengthen cooperation among DHS, ICE, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, tribal, local and international level.
Also sent to the House was HR 1299, known as the Secure Border Act of 2011, which is aimed at gaining control and approving security along the international land borders. Candice Miller, R-Michigan, is the sponsor.
Miller cited a report issued by the General Accounting Office which states the U.S. Border Patrol only has 44 percent of the southwest border was under operational control, and only 2 percent of the northern border is under operational control.
“I do believe instead of spending money in an ad hoc fashion, that the DHS should develop a comprehensive and coherent plan to achieve control of both borders,” Miller said.
“I think too often (when) we think of securing the borders we naturally default to fences, Border Patrol agents and camera towers. However, that is only one side of the story. We also need to increase our security at the ports of entry,” Miller said.
This same report was mentioned Monday by U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston, at a congressional hearing on border security held in Brownsville.
“We should be alarmed” by these figures, Poe said. “The duty of our federal government is to protect our borders.”
The Secure Border Act would require the DHS to submit a comprehensive strategy for gaining control of the international borders over the next five years. It calls for a determination of the number of personnel needed, infrastructure requirements and necessary agreements with local law enforcement agencies, among other things.
“The cities on the border … have done a tremendous job in the securing of their own particular citizens and probably have some of the lowest crime rates that one might see in the nation, even though they are on the border,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.
“We have to confront those committing crimes such as kidnappings, drug trafficking, smuggling and violence that does exist along the border,” Jackson said, “but we also have to realize who is helping us and thank them for doing so.”
Legislation named after slain ICE agent passes committee
By LAURA B. MARTINEZ/The Brownsville Herald