By Chad Selweski
As the top lawmaker in the House on border issues, Rep. Candice Miller is challenging Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s claim that U.S.-Mexican border security has “never been stronger” and the congresswoman questions whether immigration reform should proceed before more effective measurements of border protection are established.
Miller will be holding a session of her Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security on Tuesday to question officials from the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection.
“What I’ve said is that we need to concentrate on metrics. We’ve been focusing on resources but how do we measure success?” said Miller, a Harrison Township Republican who chairs the subcommittee. “My real question, and this is the title of my hearing on Tuesday, what does a secure border look like?”
Though the number of border agents has doubled since 2004, 700 miles of fence has been added to the Southern border, and new technologies have been deployed such as surveillance cameras and unmanned drones, Miller said the latest information indicates that only 40 percent of the border with Mexico is fully secure.
Until the DHS adopts an outcomes-based approach to keeping tabs on the border, the congresswoman said, the American people will be “in the dark when it comes to progress, or the lack thereof.”
In Senate Judiciary Committee testimony on Feb. 13, Napolitano said that the record 21,300 border agents and more sophisticated technology has resulted in more seizures of drugs and weapons and the lowest number of illegal border crossings in 40 years.
Referring to pending attempts by Congress to pass immigration reform, Napolitano told the senators that “too often the ‘border security first’ refrain simply serves as an excuse for failing to address the underlying problems.”
Experts say the net immigration of undocumented workers from Mexico to the United States has slowed to nearly nothing due to the Great Recession and the subsequent lackluster U.S. economy. Miller said she’s concerned that DHS tosses out undocumented estimates, such as the figure that 100,000 illegal crossings took place on the Southern border last year.
In response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Miller put out a statement saying “comprehensive immigration reform can only be considered once the American people are convinced the border is secure.”
But now she believes that a two-track approach makes sense.
“I think we can move on parallel tracks. I have a very open mind on comprehensive immigration reform. It’s … long overdue,” Miller said.
At the same time, the congresswoman declines to state her views on certain provisions of reform, such as providing a “pathway to citizenship” for the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers are working behind the scenes in the Senate and House to draft compromise legislation that is acceptable to most Democrats and Republicans and to the White House.
“Rather than say I’m for or against this part or that part, I’m going to wait and see what they come up with,” the congresswoman said.
A 2011 report by the General Accountability Office found that just 44 percent of the Southern border was under full “operational control,” and that only a tiny fraction of the 4,000-mile Northern border – about 32 miles — had reached that same level of acceptable security.
Miller’s chief concern is that DHS abandoned the operational control standard in favor of more nebulous measurements. The Republican lawmaker pushed legislation through the House in the 2011-12 Congress that would reverse that situation, but it died in the Senate. She plans to make another attempt this year.
At Tuesday’s Capitol Hill hearing, Miller’s panel, a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, will hear from:
Michael Fisher, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol
Kevin McAleenan, acting assistant commissioner of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Rear Admiral William Lee, deputy for operations policy and capabilities at the U.S Coast Guard
Rebecca Gambler, director of homeland security and justice for the GAO