Vote by vote, the cost of immigration reform keeps adding up.
There is new triple-layer fencing, running more than $3 million a mile. There are new vehicle barriers, at $1.3 million a mile. There are thousands of new Border Patrol agents, hired and trained at $170,000 each.
The immigration-reform package that the Senate continues amending is, in short, a bill in more ways than one. Lawmakers intent on demonstrating their commitment to border security are loading it with programs requiring tens of billions of dollars in coming years.
“Yes, I am concerned that there won’t be the funding available to meet the commitments in the bill,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said. “These are tough budget times.
“The cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the president’s tax cuts are squeezing dozens of programs, and this will be no exception.”
All told, the Senate bill so far authorizes $25 billion in additional spending between 2007 and 2011, the Congressional Budget Office estimated this week. By 2016, the additional spending would total an eye-opening $66 billion.
The money would cover new roads, 10,000 detention beds and 370 miles of new fences. It would pay for unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, state grants and more immigration attorneys and judges. It would fund port inspectors and Border Patrol agents.
The immigration bill authorizes this spending, but does not require it. Each future Congress will decide how much money to actually provide, and lawmakers and presidents don’t always follow through with these nitty-gritty appropriations.
“The business of passing stuff and then not appropriating for it has really got to stop,” Feinstein warned earlier this year.
Immigration-reform costs, moreover, extend far beyond what Congress intends to spend. By creating new guest-worker programs and welcoming undocumented immigrants, the Senate bill would also add millions of legal U.S. residents who would reap government benefits.
The new residents would require an estimated $54 billion in government services by 2016, the CBO calculated. This covers benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid and Social Security; it does not include some of the other potential social costs.
“Over the long term, we still have to see what kind of housing we have to provide,” noted Graciela Martinez, program coordinator of the Visalia, Calif.-based Proyecto Campesino.
New legal residents, though, would also be paying an estimated $66 billion during the same period in income taxes and fees. In many cases, moreover, undocumented workers are already paying taxes.
On Thursday, President Bush traveled to a blistering stretch of scrub land surrounding the nation’s busiest Border Patrol station in Arizona and declared that he supported fencing some but not all of America’s 1,950-mile border with Mexico.
“It makes sense to use fencing along the border in key locations in order to do our job,” Bush said at the headquarters of the Yuma Sector Border Patrol.
Bush has in the past indicated he is opposed to fencing, and White House officials were kept busy on Thursday trying to explain the change in the president’s position. Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, said Bush supported a Senate amendment that would build the fence in areas often used by smugglers and illegal workers.
“We don’t think you fence off the entire border,” Snow said. But, he added, “there are places when fences are appropriate.”