America’s northern border with Canada doesn’t get nearly the same level of congressional attention as its southern border with Mexico. Exhibit A is a major border bill currently snaking its way through Congress.
H.R. 3548, the Border Security for America Act, was introduced in July by Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security. Earlier this month, after surviving a slew of amendments, it was passed out of the committee on a party-line vote.
The bill is now poised to become the first significant action on border matters since the House approved $790 billion in spending for the military, including construction of a wall along the Mexican border. That vote, taken this past summer, completely ignored the spending caps required by the Budget Control Act of 2011, and thus stands little chance of approval in the Senate. What it did accomplish was to send a strong message about a willingness to invest in the nation’s international borders.
Montana has a special interest in making sure any investments are made wisely.
The state’s border with Canada is 545 miles long. That’s quite a stretch, and nearly all of it is relatively rural and remote, making it especially challenging to make efficient use of public resources. The state does not see waves of foreigners trying to enter the U.S. illegally, but its 14 crossing stations do catch their fair share of drug smugglers and human traffickers.
The massive Border Security for America Act specifically authorizes a border wall, providing a whopping $10 billion for “tactical” infrastructure and technology. Another $5 billion would be directed toward ports of entry for improvements and modernization. No less than 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents and another 5,000 Customs officers would be hired in addition to the nearly 20,000 currently employed by Border Patrol and nearly 23,000 employed by Customs. And it would double the amount of funding, at $110 million, for grants to state and local law enforcement agencies to help fight crime along the border.
The legislation also addresses the visa system and use of National Guard resources by states, among a long list of other projects.
But what has raised red flags for government watchdogs are the bill’s efforts to give U.S. Customs and Border Patrol greatly expanded authority to operate on lands under its jurisdiction – which includes all land located within 100 miles of the border.
The act would prohibit other federal agencies from “impeding, prohibiting, or restricting” the agency’s activities. Such activities include patrols, investigations and apprehensions, as well as construction and maintenance of infrastructure. And this authority includes the ability to undertake such operations without regard to a host of other federal laws, from the Endangered Species Act to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.
The original version of the bill even sought to exempt the agency from federal Freedom of Information Act laws, which would have allowed U.S. Customs to essentially act in near-total secrecy. Fortunately, an amendment pushed by Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, chair of the Border and Maritime Subcommittee, and agreed to by the larger committee, requires the agency to abide by FOIA precepts.
This means that, should this act eventually become law, Montanans and other citizens of the United States will continue to have access to important public records concerning the costs and results of border activities, including the number and type of incidents at the border as well as any planned projects that may run afoul of federal law – or individual rights. Given the mind-boggling scope of powers this bill would grant to a single agency, such public oversight would be critical.
Another well-aimed amendment forwarded by Rep. Will Hurd of Texas blocks any plans to build a border wall in rugged and remote areas such as national parks, where “natural terrain features, natural barriers, or the remoteness of such area would make deployment ineffective.” This amendment was approved on a 17-11 vote in the committee, with one member voting “present.” Unfortunately, it still leaves the authority for determining which areas are not suitable for a border wall up to the secretary of Homeland Security.
If this legislation is approved by the House, and indications are very strong that it will receive a floor vote before the end of the year, and if it eventually becomes law, the head of Homeland Security could very well deem it appropriate to build a wall in Glacier National Park.
If that idea seems too far-fetched to seriously consider, remember that very real discussions are currently taking place about building walls in similar places located along the southern border, including Big Bend National Park in Texas.
A “big, beautiful” border wall dividing the United States from Mexico was a central feature of President Trump’s campaign and remains a frequent policy talking point. The effectiveness of building a physical barrier to prevent people from crossing the border illegally is debatable; what isn’t is the fact that U.S. taxpayers will foot the full costs of any construction.
Before spending vast amounts of public dollars on new border security measures, it should be made obvious to the nation’s lawmakers that the security needs of the nation’s northern border are very different from that of its southern border. Unfortunately, Congress appears ready to apply the same provisions to both of them.
Montana doesn't need a border wall and it most certainly doesn't need to see any one federal agency granted impunity from following important laws. It does need sufficient resources to not only ensure the safety of its international border, but also to allow law-abiding Montana residents and visitors from Canada to pass through without undue hassle or delay. As representatives from one of only 13 states to share an international border, Montana's congressional delegates must work together to ensure the state’s unique interests are protected in Congress.