Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday that the Senate will tackle border security and interior immigration enforcement before turning to the broader question of immigration reforms and a guest-worker program.
“It is a separate issue, but it’s one that people understand,” the Tennessee Republican said of border security. “It’s an immediate issue, it needs to be addressed more aggressively, we need to do that.”
Speaking with The Washington Times by telephone after a helicopter tour yesterday of 300 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, Mr. Frist said he does not know whether an immigration bill can pass this year because of a heavy workload, but the Senate will pass a bill before adjourning next year.
He said the next immigration bill should address border security and could cover interior enforcement as well.
As majority leader, he controls the floor schedule of the Senate, and his decision will please many conservatives, who are calling for enforcement first. But it puts him at odds with President Bush and immigration rights advocates, who have said they want action on a broader guest-worker program this year.
His position on tackling enforcement first is similar to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who says the government must prove to voters that it can enforce immigration laws before Congress turns to a guest-worker plan.
“I think what I’m saying is probably parallel to that,” Mr. Frist said. “The understanding of immigration issues will be accelerated by the condition of understanding what border security is about, what internal enforcement is about.”
New House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, is also leaning in that direction, said his spokeswoman, Burson Taylor.
“Mr. Blunt’s focus with respect to the immigration question is securing the border and enforcing the immigration laws we have on the books,” she said, adding that it’s the top issue on Republican constituents’ minds. “Mr. Blunt was in 10 districts in August, and whether it was in Michigan or Georgia or his own district in Missouri, it is the number one issue.”
Several guest-worker plans are circulating in the Senate, and Mr. Frist said Congress eventually will have to address the overall issue of foreign workers and illegal aliens now here, although he is not backing a proposal. However, he did say he’s “opposed to amnesty.”
Mr. Frist toured the border with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, and Lynne Underdown, chief of the Rio Grande Valley sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. He said that from the helicopter, he could see the worn paths that illegal aliens have made to the shallowest crossings of the Rio Grande.
“It is a torrential flow of aliens coming across the border that have little difficulty in entering this country and staying illegally,” he said.
Congress last week passed the homeland security spending bill, which includes $10 billion for immigration law enforcement, including 1,000 new Border Patrol agents and more than 600 new immigration investigators and detention personnel to help with interior enforcement.
Mr. Frist said that is a substantive first step, “but when you fly along that long border, you realize that the technology is insufficient, the number of Border Patrol agents is insufficient to address what is an increasing challenge.”
He said he was particularly interested in “special-interest aliens” — those from countries where terrorists are active. Last year, 109 of these illegal aliens were picked up in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
“That’s useful for me because this being a security issue, a humanitarian issue and an economic issue, the security aspect of it was driven home by the fact there were 109 of these special-interest aliens last year,” Mr. Frist said.
The majority leader did not meet with members of the Minuteman Project, who are doing voluntary patrols to try to block aliens from illegally crossing the border. But he seemed to side more with their backers than their opponents — including Mr. Bush, who has called them vigilantes.
“I did ask people over the course of today what their impressions were, and I left with a very positive attitude towards them, at least among the people I talked with — that they were filling a gap that needs to be filled, and that most people feel the government has a responsibility to fill and has not done,” he said.