- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

The House battle over border security began yesterday, with the Homeland Security Committee passing an amendment that would compensate local governments for some incurred law-enforcement costs as part of a broad immigration-enforcement bill.

The overall bill, which would end the government’s “catch-and-release” policy for illegals from countries other than Mexico and require a border-barrier system, is expected to pass the committee today.

The measure also would require the Homeland Security and Defense departments to coordinate a border strategy and would require the former to provide 100 percent coverage of the borders through fences, aerial surveillance and other technology.

Republicans said the reimbursement amendment, which lets localities redirect homeland security grants to pay for law-enforcement costs from illegal immigration, should signal that border patrol is a federal responsibility that President Bush must take seriously.

“State and local governments should not be expected to assume this already large and growing financial burden for securing our borders,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican.

But Democrats said the amendment diverts homeland security money from first responders and gives a pass to the federal government.

“It leaves the federal government off the hook for what is primarily our responsibility — enforcement of immigration laws,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., New Jersey Democrat.

Democrats want a broader bill that goes beyond border enforcement, but they found plenty on which to agree with Republicans yesterday — particularly sending a message to Mr. Bush.

“The administration needs to take very seriously border security, apprehensions at the border, and detention and removal as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, panel chairman and author of most of the bill.

The committee adjourned last night after considering several amendments, including one that would reimburse landowners along the border whose properties are damaged by illegal aliens. The amendment received bipartisan support.

Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican, said the Border Patrol refuses to police some areas within five miles of the border and that the fences of ranchers in his district are being destroyed by illegal border crossings.

“This forces the issue,” Mr. Pascrell said. “Either the Border Patrol appreciates its full commitment or the federal government pays.”

Republican leaders want a full House vote on border security before year’s end. The border-security bill, which was expected to pass the panel with bipartisan support today, will be a large part of that push.

The bill’s biggest target is the “catch-and-release” policy that has led to immigration authorities releasing more than 100,000 non-Mexican illegal aliens — called OTMs, for “other than Mexicans” — this year.

Although Mexican illegals are immediately returned home, OTMs are routinely processed and released into the United States in the hope that they return to be deported later. Only a small percentage show up.

The bill directs Homeland Security to contract for more beds to hold OTMs; requires any OTM caught before Oct. 1, 2006, to post a $5,000 bond before release; and requires detention after that date for any alien caught crossing the border illegally.

The bill also would penalize those countries that refuse to take back aliens the United States wants to deport by withholding visas from citizens of those countries.

Democrats criticized both Congress and the Bush administration — blaming the former for underfunding homeland security and the latter for failing to take border security seriously.

“No matter how many laws Congress passes, if the administration doesn’t act upon and enforce those laws, then our nation is at risk,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and the committee’s ranking member.

The panel avoided a showdown on combining the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Customs and Border Protection agencies, though one seems imminent.

Mr. King said there is a strong sentiment on the committee to merge the agencies, but added that he is willing to defer the matter at the request of the department.

“We’re watching, and the clock is ticking,” he said.

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