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Senate Cracks Down on Mexican Border Crossings

March 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room was filled with Texans this morning, many of them frustrated with what they believe is federal inaction on securing the border with Mexico.

SHERIFF D’WAYNE JERNIGAN, Val Verde County, Texas: It used to be you could leave your keys in your truck, you know, you didn’t worry about it, left the rifle hanging in the back of the truck, you know, overnight. No more.

KWAME HOLMAN: D’Wayne Jernigan is the sheriff of Val Verde County, Texas, the state that shares 1,200 of the 2,000 mile U.S. border with Mexico.

SHERIFF D’WAYNE JERNIGAN: You know the ranchers, at least in my area, go to Wal-Mart or HEB, buy water, food, plant it around their house outdoors in the hopes that as the aliens come through their ranch they won’t break into their home when they are away from home. They actually leave the food and water planted around their home. That’s become a way of life along the border.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona have written new legislation to strengthen border security. It’s one of several new immigration reform ideas that begin moving through the legislative process this week.

Others proposals would establish temporary guest worker programs for many of the approximately 11 million people now believed to be in the United States illegally.

But Cornyn wanted to make clear that not all are here to work, and not all are from Mexico.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: People coming across from countries other than Mexico by their country from October 2003 to June 30, 2004, and for example, it indicates that ten came from Iran, not exactly a friend of this country, and a country that is in the process of making, if they don’t already have, nuclear weapons.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lavogyer Durham added the perspective he’s developed as the owner of a Texas ranch 75 miles from the Mexican border.

LAVOGYER DURHAM: Like Mr. D’Wayne Jernigan was talking about here, the class of people — it used to be the people that would come across were mostly from the way interior of Mexico, San Luis, Michoacan, and so on down the line, and they were just honest people. You would invite them to your house. You would feed them. You would, you know, do whatever to help them out and stuff.

Now it’s — you don’t know what’s coming across. You know, you got 50 percent of the people that you catch now around here are OTM’s, other than Mexicans and stuff. And the count has just quadrupled.

KWAME HOLMAN: One idea Senators Cornyn and Kyl are pursuing is the development of a “virtual fence” along the border using improved surveillance techniques, and not the 700-mile physical barrier that the House approved late last year to be built along the California border.

David Aguilar, chief of border patrol for the Department of Homeland Security, said some combination of ideas would work.

DAVID AGUILAR: So when we talk about a fence, we need to talk about a comprehensive model, if you will that sometimes does require a fence. At other times it may require a drive-through barrier; at other times it may require just a combination of technology that will give us what the secretary and we are now calling a 21st century fence, that will give us those eyes and ears on the border.

So I guess the short answer to the 700-mile fence is probably not. It is what we need to have those eyes and ears on those 700 miles of border that will give us the capability to create that deterrence we are looking for.

KWAME HOLMAN: But California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said fences would do nothing to block the 40 or so tunnels that have been discovered underneath the U.S-Mexico border. The longest, a half-mile tunnel running from San Diego to Tijuana, was discovered in late January.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It went down sixty to eighty feet; it was ventilated, had electricity, contained a rail system to ferry contraband back and forth between our countries. I think at the time the border patrol found it, it had 2,000 pounds of marijuana at one end and 300 pounds at the other.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators Feinstein and Kyl have called for prison terms up to 20 years for anyone caught building or trafficking through cross-border tunnels. It is among the many proposals senators will begin evaluating tomorrow when the Judiciary Committee starts the long process of writing comprehensive immigration reform.