WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, returned from the nation’s southwest border saying security has improved significantly but convinced that more needs to be done before immigration reforms are advanced.
"I don’t think we can effectively address immigration reform until we secure the border," the 1st District congressman said in a telephone interview Thursday from Arkansas.
In particular, Crawford said there is a serious need for targeted investments in barriers, surveillance technologies and people.
Crawford traveled the border earlier this week with U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
In San Diego, Crawford said, the border is lined with a primary and secondary fence. The area between the two fences is awash in stadium lighting and under constant camera surveillance.
He said the fencing has helped dramatically reduce illegal border crossings but they still occur, and such fencing is not practical for the entire length of the border – particularly where the terrain is rough. It also comes at a high cost, about $5 million a mile.
Crawford said border agents he met are looking for better surveillance equipment and assistance across U.S. and Mexican agencies to address the remaining problem. In particular, he said, there is a need to stay ahead of the drug cartels seeking to smuggle illicit drugs over the border.
"These cartels have essentially unlimited funds and are investing in some elaborate infrastructure. Some of these tunnels — they’ve found more than 160 — have rail, lighting and ventilation. Some are quite long and deep and they are able to traffic tons of marijuana and meth into our county. So it is a huge problem," Crawford said.
Immigration reform could be on the front burner when the House returns to Capitol Hill from its summer recess in September. Rather than take up a comprehensive bill, House Republican leaders have said they plan to take up the issue in pieces. McCaul has a border security bill that could be among the first debated.
Crawford has also introduced legislation to deal with migrant farm workers. It would establish a program where foreign workers could enter the United States for 11 months a year to do migrant farm work. A portion of their earnings would be withheld, which could be reclaimed when they return home, he said.
"So they would be incentivized to play by the rules," Crawford said.
The Senate already approved an immigration bill this year that would boost border security — adding 700 miles of fencing and 20,000 border agents — and provide a means for undocumented immigrants to be legalized and potentially earn citizenship.