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House lawmakers grill Border Patrol, as Senate passes immigration bill

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WASHINGTON – A House subcommittee grilled Customs and Border Patrol agents Thursday over Southwest border security, charging that agents cannot identify which areas of the border are most dangerous.

Border Patrol agents testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform’s subcommittee on national security conceded that there are still problems, but insisted that more agents and better technology continue to make for a safer border.

“There’s no cookie-cutter approach” to securing the border, but different techniques applied in different sectors,  said Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher. What is effective in Yuma may not be effective in Nogales, he told the subcommittee.

Subcommittee Republicans were dubious.

“It seems there is such a disconnect between those on the front lines and the bureaucrats that have marched up here on the Hill to tell us what they think and what we want to hear,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott.

The House hearing came the same day the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes demands for a secure border and calls for 20,000 more border patrol officers, among other security measures.

The bill, which passed late Thursday afternoon on a 68-32 vote, now heads to the House where its prospects are uncertain.

Earlier in the day, Fisher and David Murphy, the border patrol’s acting assistant commissioner for field operations, testified that the agency deployed more than 1,500 monitoring devices along the border in the last 11 years to help identify contraband. The number of border patrol agents has grown from 10,000 in 2004 to more than 21,000 today, they said.

These efforts have been successful, Fisher and Murphy said, pointing to 2010 FBI reports that show violent crime along the Southwest border dropped an average of 40 percent in two decades.

Rebecca Gambler, director of the Government Accountability Office’s Homeland Security and Justice team, testified that the Department of Homeland Security has seen spending for border security grow from about $5.9 billion in 2005 to $11.8 billion in 2012.

While Gambler commended Homeland Security for coordinating with the Interior and Agriculture departments, two agencies that protect federal lands, she said the agencies still need to share more information on daily operations.

But Republicans in the subcommittee challenged Fisher and Murphy, arguing that the border is not secure and demanding to know what can be done to fix those border sectors that are dangerous.

Gosar said he has talked to agents on the ground who confirm the dangers. One agent told Gosar that the way CBP tracks border crossers is inefficient, and another estimated the agency catches only 20 percent of border crossers a day.

Border Patrol agents say their job includes a “constant fight with the federal government,” Gosar said.

Subcommittee Republicans on Thursday also echoed criticisms of the Senate immigration bill from other House Republicans, who say it does not do enough to secure the border.

The Senate bill’s sponsors – including Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake – have insisted that it secures the border and that it has been toughened even further by Senate amendments requiring thousands more agents on the border and hundreds of additional miles of fence.

Flake applauded the Senate for passing the bipartisan bill, which won the support of 14 Republicans, all 52 Democrats and both independents in the chamber.

“This legislation goes a long way toward securing our borders, modernizes our legal system, spurs economic growth and provides a tough-but-fair solution to those here illegally,” Flake said in a statement released minutes after the vote.

But House Speaker John Boehner has insisted that Republicans will bring up their own bill and will not merely consider whatever the Senate sends over. As opposed to one comprehensive measure, the GOP is currently pursuing several bills that are considered tougher on illegal immigration.

But House Democrats remained optimistic Thursday about the chances for the Senate bill. They said in a news conference that they only need 25 to 30 Republican votes to pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, called for bipartisanship on the issue in the House. The Republican leadership must “have the moral imperative and courage to let bipartisanship work and to let this House vote,” he said at the news conference.