House Democrats warn of more border deaths under Senate immigration bill

Border-state Democrats are warning this week that the Senate's immigration reform bill would increase the number of migrant deaths.

Behind the leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), the lawmakers said the Senate's border security provisions — sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and John Hoeven (N.D.) — would "militarize" the border at the expense of migrant lives.

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"Since 9/11, we've seen increasing deaths of migrants despite decreasing crossing attempts," Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) told reporters Wednesday outside the Capitol. "So I think it's logical to assume that if we continue to wall up, militarize and fortify the border, we're going to push those fewer and fewer migrants who choose to cross into more treacherous territory, thereby ensuring greater death and suffering.

"We will definitely see more death and suffering if we pass immigration reform with something like Corker-Hoeven," he added.

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, delivered a similar message, warning that an overemphasis on security would both increase migrant deaths and slow the flow of trade between Mexico and the United States.

Yet another border-state Democrat, Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), churned headlines earlier in the month when he quit the CHC to protest the Senate's border-fence provisions.

The growing opposition to the Corker-Hoeven provision comes even as Democratic leaders, from President Obama on down, are encouraging House Republicans to take up the Senate-passed bill for the sake of reforming the nation's broken immigration system this year. The suggestion has been that House Democrats would vote to support that package en masse, but the criticism from Hispanic leaders, who have been the loudest advocates for reform, threatens to undermine that message.

It might not matter. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has refused to bring the Senate package to the floor, arguing that a piecemeal approach is more thoughtful.

Approved last month in an effort to rally more conservatives behind comprehensive reform, the Corker-Hoeven provision would provide an additional $40 billion over the next decade to bolster border enforcement. Central to that effort, the measure would fund an additional 18,000 Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of physical border fence.

The amendment passed easily, 69-29, with 15 Republicans backing the measure. It set the stage for final approval of the Senate package, which passed by a similarly lopsided 68-32 vote.

The Democrats say they're more attuned to a House GOP proposal sponsored by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), that calls for a comprehensive border strategy to be in place before more funding is allocated.

O'Rourke called the McCaul bill "a much more humane, rational and fiscally responsible approach."

"That we're even considering building a wall of additional 700 miles and doubling the border patrol is ridiculous," he said. "This is one area where I think the House is going to get this one right."

House Republicans have also panned the Senate's border-fence provisions — though for decidedly different reasons.

Many, like Rep. Candice Miller, don't want to spend so much without guarantees the resources are working. The Michigan Republican, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee's subpanel on border security, said at a hearing this week that the Corker-Hoeven provision represents "a continuation of previous efforts to secure the border, with a heavy emphasis on spending resources, with limited accountability or ability to measure outcomes of those applied resources."

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), a member of the bipartisan group negotiating a comprehensive reform package in the House, is also wary of the heavy emphasis on the border fence. He warned earlier this month that anyone hoping to seal the southern border entirely is dreaming.

“I've been down there all my life, and I'm telling you, you can have a 40-foot wall and put machine guns on it, and you can't secure the southern border," he said. "There's too much wild country."