Hearings revive border violence debate as troops requested

Drug violence in Mexico is expected to get a renewed focus in the Senate this week as a bevy of House members from the southwest region push to send more troops to the border.

The Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control takes the lead on Wednesday as it holds a long-awaited hearing on the drug trafficking violence in Mexico and the immediate implications for the U.S.

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At the same time, the Senate Homeland Security Committee is set to examine the government’s crackdown on gun smuggling operations between the U.S. and Mexico during its Wednesday hearing on terrorists and guns.

The renewed attention from the upper chamber comes as a bipartisan group of 17 House lawmakers from the southwest region sent a letter last week to President Barack Obama calling on him to deploy National Guard troops to their home states as part of the “swift and decisive” action needed to combat the violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, which “continues to increase at an alarming rate.”  

The recent slayings of a U.S. consulate worker in Mexico and an Arizona border rancher added to the 79 American citizens killed last year in the violent city of Juarez, Mexico, the lawmakers said. 

The continued threat to Americans in towns and cities along the border has been cited by proponents of the Arizona law passed last week that requires local and state law enforcement officials to question people about their immigration status if they suspect them of being in the U.S. illegally. Critics of the law, however, say that it amounts to racial profiling.

The move has thrust the highly controversial immigration debate back into the spotlight and has reignited talks in Congress to change the nation’s immigration laws and provide a path to citizenship for the country’s illegal immigrants.

But the revitalized talks have the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), concerned that Americans won’t be able to foot the bill. Thompson is advocating a comprehensive approach to the border issues that both stems the increasing violence and addresses the problem of illegal immigration.

“When the immigration debate takes off it will include border security, interior enforcement, as well as what equipment and manpower is necessary to support that,” he said in an interview last week. “And this is going to come at a tremendous price tag. I think fighting wars abroad and putting immigration on top of all that, it will be a real challenge.”

“If you’re looking at a comprehensive piece of legislation you’re looking at an expensive piece of legislation,” he said, adding that “immigration is still a federal responsibility. We can’t step away from it. If we do then some other state is going to try and do what Arizona did. We can’t neglect our established responsibility.”

The debate over what is a “comprehensive” approach took off in the Senate last week after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – a longtime advocate of including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as part of immigration reform – emphasized that border security must be the top priority in trying to address illegal immigration concerns.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was quick to call McCain’s plan short-sighted, saying that the Democratic plan was more “comprehensive” because it “both increases border security and prevents employers from hiring illegal immigrants.”

In a recent interview, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) – who has been thrust in the spotlight after calling for a boycott of his state’s newly passed immigration law – told The Hill that while the issue of border violence needs to be addressed in the immigration debate, it also needs to be looked at as a unique issue outside of it.

“[The border violence] complicates it because it becomes a prevalent excuse for people to say let’s not do anything until we stop the violence along the border,” said Grijalva. “But I think that’s just short-sighted and that unless we deal with something that’s comprehensive, these instances are going to continue.”

“The violence has to be looked at through its own prism and that prism is security and what more we need to do,” he said. “Do we need to devote more resources from our side to deal with the gun running? Do we have to have tougher regulations to deal with the money that these cartels are laundering? The level of the organizations we’re fighting is immense. This is not just some guy with 100 pounds of heroin. This is serious. It’s clouded the issue and some people want to use it as some excuse. I don’t want it to be an either or, but you’ve got to deal with the violence.”

About 18,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took power in 2006 and began an all-out war against drug cartels in his country.

Calderon has deployed 45,000 army soldiers to dangerous cities and regions throughout Mexico – including 7,000 to Juarez, where more than 4,500 people have been killed in the past two years -- but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last week that the troops have not helped thwart the violence a great deal.