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McCain, senators grill Homeland Security on enforcement claims

Senators questioned assurances Wednesday that the border is getting more secure, telling Homeland Security officials that the government needs a better plan and a better way of measuring progress on the border.

Witnesses told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that apprehensions at the border were at an all-time low last year, which they called evidence that the border is tighter than it has been in the past.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pushed border officials to give Congress comprehensive metrics and standards, saying lawmakers would be unable to determine the level of security without such information.

“Apprehensions are not the only measurement, but at the moment, that’s all we have,” McCain said at the hearing.

Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Tom Carper, D-Del., echoed McCain’s concern over a lack of border metrics.

Coburn cited a Government Accountability Office report that pointed to the absence of a security plan and encouraged border officials to inform Congress of the tools it will need.

“Our job is not just to be critical,” Coburn said.

The hearing comes as a bipartisan group of senators – including McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. – are working on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that could be unveiled this month. Republicans have said that evidence of a secure border is needed before any reform plan can go forward.

Witnesses Wednesday insisted the border is more secure. Besides apprehensions being down, the number of officers on the Southwest border is more than double what it was before 9/11, and technology has improved, they said.

Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher said that vehicle barricades have lead to a reduction in illegal border crossings and other criminal activity. Agents can now also track people who have tried to enter the country before, which provides good metrics, he said.

“Whether it goes up or it goes down, one can make the case we are doing a good job,” Fisher said.

But he and others conceded that border security is not without holes.

“I’m often asked, ‘When will the border be secure?’” Fisher said. “My answer is often, ‘When no more dangerous people are trying to gain entry.’”

McCain said he would like to see radar and drones, what he called some of the best surveillance tools available, along the entire Southwest border, but that Congress cannot fund needed technology without more communication from border officials.

Randolph Alles, the assistant commissioner for Customs and Border Protection‘s Office of Air and Marine, agreed that more radar devices and drones would “help see what our border looks like.” But he said the agency’s current budget would allow only two more radar detection devices to be installed at the border.

But Carper said technology alone will not solve the problem.

“We need to find out what works,” Carper said. “If I were a bad guy trying to get through with drugs or people, I would certainly figure out the drone schedule.”

Border security is a huge government investment and “the road to improvement is always under construction,” Carper said.

“We’re learning, we’re getting smarter,” he said. But to create a multilayer security strategy, those in charge of the border need to make it possible for Congress to get them the resources they need, Carper said.

“Is it a fool’s errand to think we can develop the technology and combine it with our ground efforts?” he asked.

Carper asked the border officials to raise their hands if they thought the border was more secure than in 2001. They all did. Then he asked them to raise their hands if they think there is a need for security to be improved still. They all did again.

Carper also asked the border officials if providing immigrants a legal path to citizenship would help with their efforts to secure the border.

The border officials responded with a unanimous “yes” and “absolutely sir.”

But in his testimony, Fisher said the next steps should be to focus on expanding operations to better coordinate federal, local and tribal organizations.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Michelle Peirano/Cronkite News Service

Kevin K. McAleenan, left, of Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher, Randolph D. Alles of CBP’s air and marine office and James A Dinkins of Homeland Security Investigation faced tough questioning on border security from a Senate committee.