The Senate immigration bill includes a plan to check the fingerprints of… (John Moore / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — A plan to check fingerprints of foreigners leaving the U.S. is popular in Congress — but not at the Homeland Security Department, where officials say the technology would do little to halt illegal immigration.
But thanks in part to lobbying by security contractors, the Senate immigration bill that goes to the Republican-led House this week includes a computerized "biometric" exit system that could cost more than $7 billion.
The plan is part of the bill's $46-billion border "surge" of security measures, a 10-year spending gusher that would produce a financial bonanza for some of America's largest aerospace, technology and security companies, as well as some border states.
The legislation would force the Homeland Security Department — which has a total proposed budget of $39 billion in fiscal year 2014 — to absorb a staggering increase in funding, equipment and staff at a time when most federal agencies and departments are struggling with budget cutbacks, furloughs and reduced services.
After months of wrangling, a bipartisan group of eight senators initially had proposed spending $4.5 billion for border security as part of an overhaul of immigration laws. However, that sum jumped tenfold in the final days of debate last month in a bid to win over Republicans who demanded stronger measures before they would consider a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.
If the law is enacted, the Treasury Department would set aside $46.3 billion in a special trust fund account to protect it from lawmakers who might seek to draw on or reduce the money in future budget battles.
Critics, even those who support reform, say the bill is laden with pork and that politics has trumped policy. Among other problems, the Homeland Security Department, which was created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has a reputation of poor management and wasteful spending.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, considers Homeland Security Department acquisition programs to be at "high risk" for abuse. A GAO report in February concluded that major acquisitions "continue to cost more than expected, take longer to deploy than planned, or deliver less capability than promised."
"There could be abuses," said Stewart Baker, former head of policy at Homeland Security, warning it would take "gut-straining effort" to complete the surge in 10 years.
"You can say without fear of being wrong that tens of millions, hundreds of millions will be wasted," said Edward Alden, an immigration policy expert at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. "I don't know of anybody who thinks this is the best expenditure of money."
The spending plan already has generated opposition in the House. The bill is "throwing $46 billion at a problem without any plan, without any strategy, without any definition of operational control," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The immigration bill is unusual in its specificity. It sets aside $7.5 billion to build a 700-mile, high-tech fence, giving the secretary of Homeland Security the authority to "waive all legal requirements" to get the project built quickly.
It would spend $30 billion to add nearly 20,000 agents to the Border Patrol, doubling the size of the force and making it the nation's biggest law enforcement agency. Nearly all would be posted along the Southwest border.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano supports the bill but has said repeatedly that more border agents are not necessary.
"It's an irrational build-up," said Chris Rickerd, policy counsel on immigration at the American Civil Liberties Union. "It doesn't correspond to security needs or any reasonable approach to securing the border."
The bill specifies what the agents will get and where: 4,595 ground sensors, 507 radiation detectors, 917 camera towers, 820 pairs of night vision goggles and more.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, flies 10 unarmed Predator drones along the border, but the bill requires nonstop airborne surveillance: Internal documents show that would require enlarging the fleet to 24 drones.
The expansion will significantly benefit a California company. The border agency recently signed a $128-million sole-source contract with General Atomics, based in Poway, to provide operations and maintenance for its 10 Predators. The same contract taps the company to sell and service 14 additional drones if Congress approves the funding. The expected purchase cost is $252 million.
"It is a huge expense," said Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group based in San Francisco. "We haven't seen anything … showing that increasing surveillance on the border would benefit the country and justify the costs."