The great divides 

Hamilton hosts House’s immigration road-show

Even as Sen. Conrad Burns fends off calls from state Democrats and the Montana AFL-CIO to prove that Hugo Reyes, a Guatemalan man Burns hired to do maintenance on his Virginia home, is a documented legal immigrant, Burns’ colleague in the United States House of Representatives, Dennis Rehberg, was in Hamilton, playing host to a congressional field hearing on immigration reform. While Burns—who’s voted against amnesty for illegal workers—jokes publicly about Reyes’ refusal to produce a green card, Rehberg’s road show is designed to drum up public support for a House version of immigration reform heavy on fences and quasi-military patrols.

Approximately 80 people gathered Monday, Aug. 28., to hear witnesses testify about drug and gun trafficking across the rugged, sparsely populated border separating Canada and the western United States. Outside, the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance held a rally sharply critical of the House bill.

The hearing was one of 19 scheduled around the country this summer to draw attention to the immigration reform bill passed by the House of Representatives last December. Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, who represents Colorado’s 6th District, chaired the hearing. The list of witnesses included Abigail Kimbell, regional forester for the northern region of the U.S. Forest Service; Special Agent Jeffrey Copp, of the Dept. of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Robert Harris, chief patrol agent with Customs and Border Protection, another division of DHS; Glacier County Sheriff Wayne Dusterhoff; and Sgt. Jeremy House, a supervisor with the Billings Police Department.

Each witness testified about the special problems their particular agency confronts in trying to secure the long, porous border with Canada. Most of those problems center on drug and gun trafficking in both directions—from south to north and vice versa. In turn, each witness told tales of catching well-armed and high tech-equipped drug smugglers in various federal interdiction programs with names such as Operation Frozen Timber and Project North Star.

Tancredo gave his own eyewitness account of a Forest Service anti-drug-smuggling program put into place several years ago at the Canadian border in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. One hundred Marines were detached to the border to catch drug smugglers, aided by three unmanned aerial vehicles and two radar stations.

“At the conclusion of that two-week exercise,” Tancredo said, “I can tell you, there was nothing that crossed that border that we didn’t see.” The Marine greeting to people trying to cross the border illegally, Tancredo said, was, “Hi. Welcome to America. Now spread it.”

Tancredo declared the exercise “perfect.” Opponents of the House bill, which Tancredo and Rehberg supported, call it the criminalization of the border.

The House and Senate have both passed immigration reform bills, but the two versions view the issue through starkly different lenses. The House version, the subject of Monday’s Hamilton hearing, focuses on increased border surveillance and harsher punishment for violators, while the Senate version aims to provide guest worker programs and a path to legal citizenship.

Under the House bill, a person who enters the country illegally could be charged with a federal felony and be permanently barred from obtaining American citizenship. The bill calls for increased border surveillance, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar, cameras, guards, dogs, more checkpoints, vehicle barriers and 700 miles of fence along the country’s southwestern border. It also directs the DHS to study the feasibility of erecting a physical barrier along the country’s northern border.

The Senate version, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., calls for the issuance of three-year guest worker visas, and establishment of a path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship. Illegal immigrants currently in the country would be fined $2,000 each, and would have to pay back taxes and learn English and American civics. They would also undergo background security checks. President Bush supports the Senate version.

The guest worker provision, in particular, is a bone of contention between the House and Senate, and even among Republicans, and it drew the ire of Tancredo and Rehberg.

Meanwhile, concentrating money and manpower on the Mexican border has left the wide-open Canadian border vulnerable to smugglers of drugs, prostitutes and guns, Tancredo said. Thirty states have passed their own immigration legislation, he said. None of it is particularly significant, but it points to the fact that Congress has failed to reform immigration laws, leaving states to pick up the slack.

In fact, Congress has passed 17 immigration reform bills in the past two decades, and opponents of the current House bill point out that illegal immigration has soared in those years to 11 or 12 million.

Tougher surveillance, enforcement and punishment haven’t done much to stem the tide, nor will it, said John Schneeberger, a Democratic candidate for HD 87 who attended both the hearing and the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance rally. What it will do, said Alliance President Bill LaCroix, is whip up the conservative base.

“This is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Schneeberger said. The sole point of the hearing was “to poke holes in the Senate bill because they don’t like the fact that the Senate bill isn’t as Draconian and mean-spirited, and doesn’t criminalize millions of people.”

“That’s their opinion,” Rehberg replied. “Their beef isn’t with this hearing, it’s with the bill.”

No members of the public were allowed to speak at the hearing, and the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance was denied a representative on the witness list. Nonetheless, Rehberg said he listened to what the invited witnesses had to say and would take their input back to Congress where the two versions of the bill will eventually be reconciled in conference committee.

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