Immigration Reform Passes Senate; Cantwell Border Security Measures Included

Bill includes Cantwell legislation to ban border tunnels, reimburse northern border communities for border enforcement costs.Over 14,000 border agents added, balances needs of state businesses, increases visas for skilled workers

WASHINGTON, DC – Thursday, the United States Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) voted for the immigration bill, which would enhance border security, create a guest worker program to meet the needs of state businesses, and confront the issue of undocumented immigrants. The legislation includes key Cantwell-championed measures to ban border tunnels, deploy unmanned aircraft to patrol the northern border, and reimburse northern border communities for the cost of prosecuting and detaining individuals suspected of border crimes. It would also increase the number of visas for highly skilled workers, and authorize 14,000 additional border agents, at least 2,500 port of entry inspectors, and 10,000 personnel to enforce employment regulations. The immigration package passed the Senate by a vote of 62-36.

“The Senate passed a comprehensive and realistic immigration reform plan to close the many gaping holes in our nation’s security and meet the needs of our economy,” said Cantwell. “It will help deliver the kind of security Americans deserve by adding border personnel and making effective use of the latest technology to expand the reach and effectiveness of border agents. The security risk posed by our nearly 6,000 miles of porous borders is simply unacceptable. We have long needed a comprehensive immigration plan that strengthens security and addresses the undocumented aliens living in the U.S. in an honest, realistic way. By setting-up a guest worker program, which this bill will do, we can make sure agriculture and other industries have access to the labor they need legally.”

The immigration bill (S. 2611) includes a Cantwell-sponsored measure to help border communities cover the cost of prosecuting and detaining individuals suspected of border crimes. The high costs of prosecuting criminals who commit federal border crimes are weighing down small communities along our northern border. In 2004, Washington state’s Whatcom County was forced to prosecute more than 85 percent of the criminal apprehensions made by federal law enforcement officers at or near the border, costing the county more than $2.5 million. Modeled on an existing program for the southern border, Cantwell’s legislation would authorize almost $30 million annually to reimburse border communities.

A second Cantwell-backed border security measure included in the Senate-passed bill would outlaw the construction and financing of border tunnels. In July 2005, a Canadian agent discovered a 360-foot smuggling tunnel across the U.S.-Canada border from Lynden in Whatcom County, Washington. Currently, tunnel construction is not a crime, meaning suspects only face drug conspiracy or illegal immigration charges, and are not charged for the actual tunnel construction, even though it poses a serious threat to national security. The legislation, introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Cantwell, would subject guilty parties to a prison term of up to 20 years, and hold property owners who permit tunnel construction accountable.

Cantwell also joined Senators Max Baucus (D-MT), Larry Craig (R-ID), and Conrad Burns (R-MT) in introducing an amendment approved Thursday that directs the Defense Department to use unmanned aerial vehicles for border surveillance along the northern border as part of a one-year pilot program.

To further enhance security on America’s borders, the immigration bill would authorize 14,000 additional border agents and at least 2,500 port of entry inspectors, and would authorize a virtual fence to allow the border to be patrolled with unmanned aircraft, cameras, sensors, and other technology. It would also authorize the hiring of 10,000 agents to enforce employment regulations as part of a program that would require employers to check Social Security numbers of new hires against a federal database.

To help meet the needs of businesses and agriculture producers, the bill calls for a guest worker program that would allow up to 200,000 people outside the country to fill vacant jobs during the first year. Workers would receive a once-renewable three-year visa. After holding a visa for four years, they could apply for permanent residence. The bill would also make illegal immigrants who have been in the United States since April 5, 2001 eligible for legal status after working in the United States for six years, passing a background check, paying back taxes, holding a job, learning civics and English, and paying a $3,250 fine. Illegal immigrants who have been in this country between two and five years would have to register with the Department of Homeland Security. Within three years of their registration, they would have to leave the United States and could return by applying for a visa. After clearing a background check, paying back taxes, and meeting other requirements, these individuals would qualify for legal permanent residence status. An additional 1.5 million agricultural workers would be eligible for permanent legal residence if they could prove they worked in agriculture in the United States previously, and if they worked three to five more years in agriculture.

To help meet the needs of Washington state’s high-tech industries, the Senate immigration bill raises the annual H1B visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000. It also includes a Cantwell-sponsored bipartisan measure to increase the proportion of visas currently issued each year to highly-skilled workers, and to workers with advanced degrees. In doing so, this provision would help meet America’s growing need for scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.