WASHINGTON — Seeking to curtail illegal immigration, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Wednesday called for tough and controversial enforcement measures, including imposing a toll on anyone entering the United States to raise revenues to beef up the Border Patrol.
A $1-per-person "transit fee" on pedestrians and passengers crossing U.S. borders would have raised about $400 million last year alone--enough money to more than double the Border Patrol's current annual budget, Feinstein said in a speech on the Senate floor.
A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which plays a central role in immigration legislation, Feinstein introduced a six-point plan that proposes to increase penalties for smugglers convicted of transporting illegal immigrants and to deport illegal immigrants who commit felonies so they can serve their sentences in foreign prisons.
Responding to rising national tensions over immigration, Feinstein said, "I believe we can avoid a serious backlash against all immigrants if we can take strong action now to restrict illegal immigration."
Prospects for the legislation in Congress are uncertain. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has agreed to consider the proposals but is not yet prepared to lend her support, Feinstein said.
Although parts of the proposals are contained in about 30 House bills dealing with immigration, Feinstein said she also intends to introduce her own legislation.
Feinstein has become increasingly outspoken on immigration matters, an issue that has aroused intense controversy during California's economic downturn. Her involvement also comes at a time when immigration is gaining higher visibility nationally after recent terrorist episodes in New York and the arrival of boatloads of smuggled Chinese immigrants on both coasts.
The Clinton Administration has vowed to crack down on smuggling operations and streamline the backlogged political asylum process. But the first-year California senator offered other far-reaching proposals aimed at reforming immigration policy.
"As the issue has escalated, she happens to be in the right place at the right time," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Feinstein's proposals could be very influential if they are picked up by the Administration."
Under President Clinton's proposed 1994 budget, the Border Patrol would lose 93 agents and shrink to 4,770 employees. Feinstein seeks to provide increased training and equipment as well as additional agents for the beleaguered Border Patrol.
Feinstein's border toll would be levied on U.S. citizens as well as citizens of other countries. It would apply to all pedestrians or passengers who enter the country by car, ship or ferry. Currently, international travelers arriving in the United States on commercial flights pay a $10 fee as part of the cost of airline fares to subsidize immigration and customs operations.
Immediate reaction to Feinstein's proposals was mixed.
Some immigrant rights activists applauded Feinstein for taking a measured approach to the volatile illegal immigration issue even as they disagreed with her specific plans. Others were more critical.
"Overall, these proposals are the result of misunderstandings about the scope of illegal immigration and frustration with the Immigration Service's failure to properly enforce existing laws," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the Immigrants Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And it's understandable but unfortunate that someone like Sen. Feinstein, who has a long and distinguished record of protecting civil rights and immigrants' rights, is making these proposals."
The border toll proposal appears to be the most controversial. Immigration experts said such a levy would take years and millions of dollars to implement. They pointed out that delays at border crossings would grow longer and that the Mexican government could reciprocate by charging its own fees.
"The people on one side are extraordinarily poor and they're a big part of the economy on both sides of the border," said Michael Fix, an immigration specialist at the Urban Institute. "What is their capacity to pay? If you put a tax on, how do you evade the tax? You cross illegally. It may just run up the numbers of 'illegal' entries."
Proposals for a border-crossing fee have arisen periodically and have been opposed by the business communities of San Diego and Tijuana, said Dan Pegg, president of the San Diego Economic Development Corp.
Although Pegg supports expanding the Border Patrol, he said Feinstein's program would damage the region's cross-border economy and contradict the intent of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement. San Diego has the world's busiest international port of entry, with 60 million crossings a year. About 50,000 Mexicans enter the United States to shop each day, Pegg said, and thousands more who live in Tijuana cross legally to work in San Diego.