Q&A With Senators: Feinstein Backs Extensive Border Fence

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the otherwise liberal Democrat from California, provided new evidence last week that politicians in Washington are starting to take heed of grassroots demands that our borders be secured.

Feinstein told Human Events that if we can build a fence along the entire Mexican border, we should build it, and that secure fencing should be constructed wherever the border can be easily crossed.

The relevance of this issue was dramatized by Feinstein’s questioning of National Intelligence Director John Negroponte at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual World Wide Threat hearing February 2.

A year ago at this hearing, retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy, then deputy secretary of Homeland Security, revealed in his prepared testimony that "al Qaeda has considered using the Southwest border to infiltrate the United States." On February 2, by contrast, Negroponte mentioned the Afghan-Pakistan and Iran-Iraq borders in his prepared remarks, but not the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sen. Feinstein later pointed out to him that the number of "Other Than Mexicans" caught crossing the border had jumped from 49,545 in 2003 to 155,000 last year. Mentioning her discussion with Loy last year, she told Negroponte: "I said at the time I felt it [the Mexican border] was a major gateway for terrorists to access the United States. Do you have ongoing intelligence efforts to prevent this from happening?"

Negroponte passed the question to Homeland Security Department intelligence chief Charles Allen, who at one point conceded: "We really do have to work this issue a lot harder."

I asked Feinstein and other senators last week why — given the terrorist threat — we should not build a fence across the entire border.

Last week at the World Threat hearing … you mentioned that the Mexican border was "a major gateway for terrorists."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.): I said yes it can [be], it could be a major gateway, right.

If you’ll let me play devil’s advocate, why would we not build a secure fence along the entire border then if this is such a concern?

Feinstein: Oh, I think if we can, we should. I mean, one of the things I certainly support is a feasibility study to look at how a fence can best be built. I don’t know if you have to do it along the whole border, but certainly in certain places where the terrain is such — there’s some places where the terrain is such that it’s not possible to easily cross. But where it is, I think we should. I think there’s been a myth that we can’t protect our borders. I’ve never agreed with that. I think with new technology, whether it’s cameras or over-flights or anything else, it is possible to provide much more protection than we do.

Okay, so until we can take a measure like that, what is the quickest thing we could do?

Feinstein: The quickest thing is manpower and the Senate has been, I think, very forthright in approving new Border Patrol people. I notice now the Border Patrol is advertising for recruits on television. I think that’s a real positive step forward. But it really is in the mechanics of maintaining a border and taking it seriously rather than taking it in a laid back, half-hearted manner.

I talked with Rep. Duncan Hunter [R.-Calif.] about this issue, and he’s mentioned a double fence that he built in San Diego. Is this a model you are familiar with?

Feinstein: Yes. Our border in California and Mexico is double-fenced to a great extent. Also, there is a project called Operation Gatekeeper which has more Border Patrol, and they are in various lines so they are able to apprehend. But another major problem that we have is inadequate detention facilities, so that very often people are arrested coming across the border and then they are taken right back across the border. And then tomorrow they come across again. That clearly doesn’t work, and so I think there has to be a measure of sanction with this. I think the final point is really encouraging Mexico to help us. In two years, the Other-Than-Mexican intrusion has increased.

It’s tripled is what you said, right?

Feinstein: Over 300%. That indicated in a major way that people are coming to Mexico simply because they know they can get through to the United States.

Now, last year in your World Threat hearings Admiral Loy. . .

Feinstein: Right.

It seemed like he was very clear in warning everyone about this, yet it seems like no one is taking it seriously, as maybe you are.

Feinstein: That’s not true. We certainly are taking it seriously and are trying to make it known to everybody wherever we can to see that the budget is in place. That’s the key. The money. I asked once what is the optimum number of Border Patrol that we would need to be able to say the border is under control, and I think the optimum number is 15,000 to 20,000.

Last week Sen. Feinstein said she believes the Mexican border is a gateway for terrorists. Do you see any reason why we shouldn’t build a secure fence along the entire border?

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Tex.): I think that we should have the ability to detect all across our border any illegal entry. I don’t think that has to be one big continuous fence, but I think fences in high-volume areas with electronics and technology.

As for the fence all the way along the border [with Mexico], what’s stopping us from doing that? I know that’s a big measure to take but. . .

Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.): Yeah. There are very sensible proposals to dramatically expand the amount and type of fencing which I support. Among other things you need to put vehicle bollards in places where vehicles currently cross and you don’t want them to cross. In urban areas you need to expand the amount of fencing and improve it. It may not make sense within the time frame and the cost that we’re talking about here to build a fence along the entire length of the border, although that might eventually be a wise thing to do. We’re talking about the need to immediately get control, and therefore you might expend resources more economically or more efficaciously for a combination of things like surveillance vehicles, where you don’t have fencing and things of that sort.

Last week Sen. Feinstein said at the World Threat hearing that she believed the Mexican border was a major gateway for terrorists. … Is there any reason not to build a secure fence along the entire Mexican border?

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D.-La.): Well, I would say that as I have generally supported, generally supported, the idea of secure borders, that it’s going to take more than fence building to get this accomplished.

Now, we want to be welcoming to immigrants that come to this country and continue and have contributed so much, but we do want to be respectful of the American citizens and workers that have a right to employment at decent wages, with decent benefits and not have those wages driven down by illegal, not immigrants, but illegal immigrants who are not protected by the law.

Now, I think that part of the focus has to be on border security, but part of it has to be enforcing with employers the current laws that are on the books. So, it’s not an area that I’m taking a leadership role in, but I most certainly am interested in it and will try to make the best judgments I can when it comes up for votes, et cetera. But, it’s truly a — it is a problem in America right now and we need continue to try and find solutions.

So, you think the biggest barrier might be a cultural thing — the idea that we’re building a fence — rather than an economic barrier, or whether we can do it?

Landrieu: Yeah. I’m saying, while building a fence should not be dismissed, America has prided itself on having more of sort of physically open borders, but laws and rules and regulations that govern the hiring of people in the country. So I’m not saying that a fence might not be a good idea, but we need a multiple layer of approaches that are sensitive to people, sensitive to diversity in American, which is a strength — I consider it a strength not a weakness — but is also respectful of the legal, taxpaying Americans and how sometimes their jobs and livelihood are affected in a negative way by illegal immigration, unchecked illegal immigration.

Last week, Dianne Feinstein said in the World Threat hearings that she believed the Mexican border was "a major gateway for terrorists."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.): I said, you know what you should do is, and that’s basically what President Bush has said. That’s probably what she’s picking up from.