The National Border Patrol Council, the union for the agents charged with guarding the U.S.-Mexico border, says it has "serious concerns" about the way the new Senate bill handles security in the southwest — adding a major new critical voice to the immigration debate.
NBPC had held its fire in recent weeks as it worked behind the scenes to try to get the bill amended, but the agents are now speaking out and saying they aren't sure the Border Patrol can even handle the surge of 20,000 additional agents that was the crux of the deal that helped win over wavering Republicans.
"We chose to work behind the scenes, and it doesn't seem that the problems were corrected," Shawn Moran, an at-large vice president for the NBPC, told The Washington Times on Thursday, after the Senate vote. "It seems that political goals took precedence over actual reforms. Unless we're going to form a human chain from Brownsville to Imperial Beach, I'm not sure this is going to be the cure that everybody thinks it will be at the border."
With the NBPC expressing concerns, it means that all three unions for the employees at the immigration services — Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — have said the Senate bill doesn't measure up.
Senators passed their bill Thursday afternoon on a 68-32 vote, with 14 Republicans joining all of the chamber's Democrats in support.
Key to winning over many of those Republicans was an amendment from Sens. Bob Corker and John Hoeven that requires 20,000 more Border Patrol agents be added to the southwest, bringing their number to 38,405. The amendment also called for building about 350 miles of additional pedestrian fencing along the border, and suggested it could replace areas where there is now only a vehicle barrier.
Mr. Hoeven, Mr. Corker and other Republicans said the added manpower and fencing is a guarantee there won't be a new wave of illegal immigration after this current batch is legalized.
"I can tell you from 30 years of being on the border, this bill secures the border and anyone who says it doesn't does not understand our security needs," said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, in defending the boost.
The agents who patrol the border, though, disagreed.
"We don't have money for gas or ammunition or uniforms, and that's at 21,000 agents. I'm not sure how we're going to be able to handle 40,000 agents. I don't know where we're going to put them," Mr. Moran said.
The NBPC had been pushing for an alternative solution that would have reformed the way agents are paid. The administration has been haggling over how agents' overtime pay is handled and has also blamed the sequester budget cuts for having to reduce agents' hours.
Mr. Moran said they were backing an amendment from Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, that would have given the Border Patrol the flexibility to cover agents' shift changes and to cover overtime pay.
But Mr. Tester's 12-page amendment never saw any action in the Senate. All-told, senators filed 554 amendments, but just 13 saw any action — an indication of how little ground the Senate debate actually covered during its 17 days on the legislation.
Mr. Tester voted for the final bill anyway, as did all of his Democratic colleagues.
Mr. Moran said the Tester amendment would have put the equivalent of 5,000 more agents on the border over the course of a year, which he said would have been more cost effective than the $30 billion the Corker-Hoeven amendment would spend on adding 20,000 new agents.
Analysts on all sides of the issue have also questioned whether the Border Patrol could handle adding 20,000 agents to their force over 10 years.
The last time the Border Patrol surged, at the end of the George W. Bush administration, auditors said the agency had to cut some corners. It reduced the training course and, Mr. Moran said, was "more concerned with quantity than quality" in recruitment.
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