McCaul’s bill exacerbates the loss of freedom of border residents

H.R. 399, the Secure Our Border First Act of 2015, a militarization-only bill that in the words of its author, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), will allow the Department of Defense “to transfer assets from theatre of war and redeploy them to the Southwest border” passed the House Committee on Homeland Security late Wednesday and party leaders said they would take it to the floor this week for a vote. 

The “theatre of war" pledges to make the border a stage for militarism and threatens constitutional protections of all residents and communities living within 100 miles of a land or sea border - including all of San Diego County, and all the way to Disneyland in Orange County. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) already enjoy extraordinary authority to operate within this 100-mile zone with little accountability. In practice, CBP virtually ignores 4th amendment rights by subjecting residents to unjustified stops, searches and detentions as they go to work, attend school or run errands.  H.R. 399, or what border residents are referring to as “McCaul’s Militarization Bill,” would codify this policy and practice of compromising civil and human rights to the detriment of tens of millions of people who call the border region home. 

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This militarization bill is a recipe for disaster for CBP, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and border communities and will compound the current trend of abuses that are already commonplace. The bill empowers and emboldens an out-of-control border agency that is in need of reform, accountability and oversight. CBP, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency tasked with patrolling U.S. borders, has been under immense scrutiny for the lack of accountability and oversight which has fomented a culture of violence, corruption and impunity. POLITICO magazine’s scathing piece titled, “The Green Monster: How the Border Patrol became America’s most out-of-control law enforcement agency,” details the rampant abuses that have surfaced as a result of previous ill-considered efforts to address border concerns.

Members of Congress should prioritize increasing accountability measures over thousands of agents who interact with the general public as a way to improve quality of life. 

McCaul’s bill emphasizes increasing the use of drones and other aerial equipment, which DHS concluded as costly and ineffective. The DHS’ Office of the Inspector General report found the drone program costs far more than the agency claims and they can’t justify spending more on it without further study. It’s an absolute boondoggle, costing CBP an astounding $28,000 for each migrant it apprehends with drones. 

An expanded drone surveillance program calls to question whether proponents of this bill know anything about the border reality, or if they have any regard for constitutional protections of the millions of border residents. 

McCaul’s militarization bill seeks to build more miles of fencing and to nullify 100 years of environmental protections such as the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Antiquities Act, and the Endangered Species Act clearly impacting the livelihoods of all who reside in San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas. These have not been sound ideas in the past, and there is nothing to ensure that they suddenly will work now. 

The bill’s proposal to use biometric technology threatens privacy rights and will cause significant delays at our already gridlocked ports-of-entries. The border region would be better served with revitalized ports and modernized infrastructure for improved trade. Investment in port infrastructure to improve and facilitate trade will have direct and immediate beneficial impact on the national economy - in fact, 1 out of 24  jobs in the U.S. depends on trade generated in the southern border. 

H.R. 399 is a misguided piece of legislation that effectively turns southern border communities into “theatres of war” and will exacerbate the loss of civil and human rights for border communities. Accountability and transparency are not partisan issues, they are about good government. This bill is a threat to our environment, the economy, privacy and civil rights and we urge responsible Members of Congress to take a stance against this bill. 

Ramirez is director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition and Human Rights Director at Alliance San Diego.