A crew works on the border fence in downtown Brownsville, Texas, in January. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Washington — Congressional Republicans are drafting legislation that would require the federal government to develop a plan to add more fencing, sensors, agents and even drones to stop every illegal entry into the United States.
The legislative effort offers another example of how a more conservative Congress has steered the immigration debate away from the Obama administration's two-pronged push for reforms and improved border security, and toward strict enforcement of immigration laws.
In December, a lame-duck House controlled by Democrats passed the Dream Act, a reform that would have created a path to citizenship for some young illegal immigrants in the U.S., but it was narrowly defeated in the Senate.
The Democrats' Senate majority means the latest legislation is unlikely to pass, but the goal may be more political. By continuing to spearhead such measures, Republicans, who feel they are in agreement with most voters, hope to force Democrats to take a position on immigration issues in advance of the 2012 campaign.
The debate's change in tone also comes as census data show that Latinos comprise the fastest-growing block of voters, potentially a complicating factor for Republican strategists. The number of Latino voters is increasing most in states that in 2010 gained congressional seats and Electoral College votes, according to a study released in January by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Immigration skirmishes seem to excite the Republican base, said Wayne Cornelius, a professor emeritus at UC San Diego who has spent more than 40 years studying cross-border migration.
"In the short-term, they calculate they can gain more votes with these hard-liner proposals," he said, but some may have qualms about alienating Latinos.
A Republican strategist acknowledged there was debate within the party about how to handle immigration enforcement without driving away Latino voters who might otherwise agree with the fiscal conservative aspects of the party platform. Republican activists have said they think some Latino voters support the GOP position on immigration.
But many Republicans want a modernized immigration system that is consistent with the values of an immigrant nation, and those party members who speak loudly against reforms are a "vocal minority," said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the debate.
The U.S. has spent more than $4.5 billion to improve border security in the nine years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and critics argue that stopping every illegal crossing is an impractical goal.
"It is all just symbolic showmanship. It will never get through the Senate. It may have short-term electoral utility but will not result in any real legislation," Cornelius said.
But Rep. Candice S. Miller, a Michigan Republican who wrote the Secure Border Act of 2011, said in an interview that "Congress needs to reflect the political will of the majority of the American people, which is to secure our borders."
The Republican effort to push the Homeland Security Department to take a tougher stance on immigration enforcement follows a request last year by all seven Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee that asked the department to determine how much money it needed to deport every illegal immigrant the government encountered.
The Homeland Security Department has not estimated the cost, but a 2005 report by the Center for American Progress concluded it would require $206 billion over five years to deport the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
The Obama administration has, in practice, largely supported the argument that border security is the first priority, Cornelius said. "It is really a red herring. We will never have the border secure enough.... Making immigration reform hostage to border security is a recipe for policy paralysis."
Miller's proposed legislation would require the Homeland Security Department to give Congress a five-year plan to bring unlawful entries and smuggling down to nearly zero, and let Congress decide whether to fund it. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and 10 other Republicans have agreed to co-sponsor the bill, which could be introduced as early as Thursday.
The proposal may come with such a hefty price tag that it's unrealistic to carry out. But Republicans say cost should not be the Border Patrol's concern. "They need to be very candid with us and tell us what they need," Miller said. "We're the ones passing the budgets and we have to decide amongst ourselves."
Customs and Border Protection developed a strategic plan for securing the border by 2014, but some lawmakers say it doesn't go far enough. The Border Patrol reported to the Government Accountability Office that by October 2010 it had control of 873 miles of the nearly 2,000 miles of the Southwest border, or 44%.
Asking the Homeland Security Department how it can stop all illegal entries is "asking the wrong question," said Doris Meissner, former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, because law enforcement cannot change the underlying forces — jobs and the illegal drug market — that draw migrants and smugglers to the U.S.
"Members of Congress may want to pour concrete from sea to shining sea," Cornelius said, "but it is simply not realistic."