This week the Senate Homeland Security Committee grilled DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano with tough and probing questions about her handling of the border fence, visa overstayers and the Mexican drug cartels' "spotter nests" allowed to operate on U.S. soil.
Unlike similar hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Lieberman did not coddle the Secretary. He asked firm questions and maintained a demeanor befitting a senior statesman or experienced court judge: fair, stern, and ambiguous. In other words, he didn’t take sides like Chairman Leahy who was clearly defending the Administration when Secretary Napolitano testified before the Judiciary Committee.
Nevertheless, this hearing will be best remembered by the unlikely hero who cross-examined the Secretary towards the end.
That unlikely star interrogator was Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). He was late to the hearing because of some work on the Armed Services Committee, but he entered the room as a closer; a late inning hero who really took the fight to Secretary Napolitano. Senator McCain said, “I’ve seen all this before.” More specifically, he said we were promised a secure border in 1986 in exchange for amnesty, but the border is still not secure.
Reminiscent of NumbersUSA's Rosemary Jenks and Congressman Steve King, he went on to say that we have drug spotters on high perches, sitting on top of mountains, guiding drug cartels to Phoenix. In a very firm voice, McCain said, “This is not acceptable.” He went on to ask why the National Guard has been removed from the border despite locals who say they are indispensible. He said, “I shouldn’t expect my constituents to tolerate this!”
Rosemary has told me about these perches and I’m glad Senator McCain brought up the issue. Spotters for the drug cartels essentially nest on top of mountains and use surveillance and communication technology to guide drug runners on the ground away from authorities. They leave behind drug evidence, food wrappers, blankets, pornography, other types of garbage on top on our mountains, yet the Department of Homeland Security still considers them in the same category as the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, or Snuffleupagus.
Secretary Napolitano responded to Senator McCain by claiming that the National Guard has not been withdrawn and are still at their regular numbers. However, she continued by saying she was unsure how to fund them since the Department’s request was denied by appropriators. Furthermore, she said, “There is a fiscal cost.” In regards to the spotters, the Secretary said, “I keep asking where the spotters are, but the response I receive is that we have a number of possible mountain tops they could use, but no evidence.”
Senator McCain’s tone turned frustrated and angry and he asked why they don’t know the whereabouts of the spotters. He said, “They are there and everyone knows they are there."
This caused the Secretary to contest his statement by saying, “no one has been working this issue longer than I have.” However, McCain kind of just smirked in disbelief and said, “No, Madame Secretary, no one has been working on these issues longer than I have” and yielded back. Perhaps McCain is starting to understand?
MOST OF THE HEARING CONCENTRATED ON BORDER SECURITY AND VISA OVERSTAYERS
The other Senators in attendance were Susan Collins (Committee Ranking Member) of Maine, Jon Tester of Montana, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Similar to the oversight hearing held in the same committee last month, Secretary Napolitano was invited by the Senate to justify department expenses and provide a progress report for administrative programs under her jurisdiction. However, in this particular hearing, the primary topic was border security rather than the entire department.
While the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death consumed much of the early parts of the hearing, the remainder of the hearing actually provided some constructive insight about the objectives of the Secretary and the mood of the Senate.
Chairman Lieberman opened the Congressional inquiry by saying a few words about the Osama Bin Laden raid, yet quickly proceeded to the illegal immigration issue, specifically visa overstays. He stressed that 40 percent of the problem consists of visas overstays instead of those crossing the border, undercutting the legitimacy of short stay visa laws. He went on to mention that five of the 9/11 terrorists entered the country legally and that U.S. VISIT remains a troubled and ineffective problem, citing a GAO (Government and Accountability Office) study that indicates an enormous backlog. He advocated for a better U.S. VISIT system.
Ranking Members Collins used her opening remarks to emphasis that border security is not just an issue to prevent illegal entry, but an issue of security in the fight against Islamic Extremism. She also went on to praise the border patrol and asked everyone to remember the fallen officers. She also stressed the importance of Operation Stonegarden, a federal grant program that allows certain localities to maintain border security.
Secretary Napolitano delivered her opening statement by boasting that “we’ve completed all but 3 miles of the fencing required by Congress.” Unfortunately, the Secretary counts vehicle barriers, barb wire, and rocks as fencing, which is not what Congress intended or required under the Secure Fence Act.
She went on to say that “the steps we have taken are the most comprehensive and dedicated that our country has ever had.” She also said the border is safer than it has ever been and that she is “perplexed” the border patrol union would say otherwise. I tend to believe those with boots on the ground and day to day responsibilities on the border over the testimony of a Washington bureaucrat.
In response, Chairman Lieberman’s first question was about the Secure Fence Act. He said, “The Secure Fence Act required operational control,” but the Department of Homeland Security maintains that “operational control is an impossible goal.” He then asked, “What is an achievable goal” and “Are you saying we can reduce the flow of illegal immigrants by increasing visa caps and proving temporary work visas?” The Secretary responded with a firm and simple “yes” with no further explanation.
After Ranking Member Collins used her question time to ask about the northern border and non-border specific security issues, Senator John Tester of Montana was given an opportunity to ask questions. Mr. Tester asked about the visas overstay rate specified in the GAO study.
Secretary Napolitano defended her department by claiming that the GAO report is inaccurate. She says the Department picks up far more than 3% of visa overstays and that the report doesn’t account for those detected by other programs.
Freshman Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin then asked if there are enough resources to secure the border. However, the Secretary replied with a vague answer indicating that security is a combination of man power, will power, and infrastructure. I have to wonder if she knows the definition of will power.
She went on to tell Senator Johnson that using the term “operational control” doesn’t cut it. She said we need a range instead of a number.
During a second round of questioning, Chairman Lieberman returned to the U.S. VISIT issue by mentioning that the program has a backlog of overstays and asked how these people are identified and removed. The Secretary responded by saying visa overstays are another form of illegal immigration, but he Department is only appropriated enough money to remove 400,000 people a year.
Chairman Lieberman was shocked by this response and asked for clarification on whether or not 400,000 is just for overstays. However, to the contrary, the Secretary said that accounts for everyone removed in a fiscal year. She then stressed current policy to remove criminal aliens first and foremost.
Chairman Lieberman then mentioned that 4 million people are in the United States after overstaying a visa and asked the Secretary how to get that number down.
The Secretary responded by saying we need more prosecution dates and longer term visas. She said a vast number of illegal aliens are coming to the United States in search of a job and that penalties on employers need to be increased. She stressed a need to address the supply and demand.
Ranking Member Collins again deferred her questions to other security matters like she was trying to avoid the border security topic as much as possible. However, that didn’t stop Senator Johnson who asked “what exactly does the President mean by smart immigration policy?”
Secretary Napolitano revealed her true colors by saying smart immigration means streamlining and increasing the visa categories, dealing with the illegal population (hinting at some sort of amnesty scheme), and targeting employers.
In closing, this was a constructive hearing. While Senator Collins wouldn’t play her hand, Chairman Lieberman hinted about possible E-Verify type legislation and certainly expressed support for U.S. VISIT, while senator McCain seemed to step up his game. Furthermore, Senators Johnson and Tester asked tough questions rather than defend the Administration, an equally good sign. Perhaps there is hope for some good legislation in the Senate? It’s also my hope that the spotters issue brought up by McCain can merit its own hearing since his exchange with Secretary Napolitano earned the attention of numerous Senators, staff, and media types.
JONATHAN OSBORNE is the Chief Legislative Analyst for NumbersUSA
Updated: Sat, May 7th 2011 @ 8:01am EDT