By SEN. BILL FRIST
For the Standard-Speaker
America must secure its border with Mexico. The current situation in Hazleton provides an example of why we need to build hundreds of miles of fencing, vastly expand our sensor network, and give Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the powers it needs to stop intruders. While these measures alone won't fix all our immigration problems, I'm convinced they will constitute a good first step. On Monday, Sen. Rick Santorum and I will lead an effort to pass a bill to strengthen our border protection.
Anyone who lives in the Hazleton area has felt the consequences of our current uncontrolled illegal immigration. Although I don't endorse every portion of Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act, the city council's decision to pass it provides ample evidence that our immigration system needs improvement.
Under the legislation Sen. Santorum and I support, CBP will take responsibility for securing every inch of our border with Mexico. Over several years, engineers and construction workers will erect 700 miles of two-layer reinforced fencing while installing hundreds of new cameras and sensors. New unmanned aerial vehicles will supplement existing air and ground patrols. All in all, I'm convinced that the finished network will give us the protection we need to achieve what immigration-law enforcers call "operational control" over the entire border. Both the House and the Senate have come to a fundamental agreement on these steps in legislation they've already passed. Now, we just need a final agreement between the two chambers.
There's no doubt that physical barriers can make a real difference. When Congress mandated the construction of a 14-mile fence near San Diego, illegal immigration saw a drastic downturn. While law enforcement apprehended 200,000 border violators in the area during 1992, the number dropped to 9,000 last year. While it's 2,047 miles from Wyoming Street to the closest crossing of the Mexican border, however, it's obvious that illegal immigrants have continued to enter the United States in droves and, in many cases, settle far from the border.
To stem the tide of illegal immigration, we need more of what we know works. While the overwhelming majority of people who violate our borders do so in search of jobs, a small percentage of them come across to deal drugs and commit crimes. Without effective border control, we can't tell those looking for work from those bent on mayhem. Intelligence reports have shown that even al-Qaida considers our borders a key vulnerability.
But better barriers won't solve our problems alone. Congress still needs to address the illegal immigrants already in the country and provide a viable means to meet our nation's labor needs. While I would have preferred coming to agreement on a comprehensive solution this year, I've also long believed that we need to focus on enforcement first as part of the broader approach.
Congress has already passed laws to hire more people to protect our border, increase the number of detention beds for illegal immigrants, and equip CBP with better technology. We will continue funding and expanding all of these programs. Senator Santorum has led the effort to improve security along our borders. Now Congress needs to take a big step toward improving our immigration system by achieving operational control of our southern border.
Bill Frist, M.D., R-Tenn., is the U.S. Senate Majority Leader.