Border bill holds good news, bad news for local staff

Published on Thu, Apr 25, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Border bill holds good news, bad news for local staff

By Meg Olson

A bill recently approved in the United States Senate and expected to sail through final approval in the House of Representatives this week tightens up control of visas but contains measures that could ease cross-border movement.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2001, approved 97-0 in the Senate April 18, authorizes ongoing increases in border staffing and more dollars for technology. It also establishes practices and systems to make the borders more efficient, such as a national security database shared by all federal agencies and machine-readable visas.

“One of the most important things the bill mandates is the sharing of information,” said Bellingham immigration attorney Greg Boos, who worked with proponents drafting the bill. “They’ll have to find some standard way to exchange what they have.” Boos added the bill also mandated discussing perimeter security measures with Canada and Mexico.

On a local level, the bill should see more inspectors and technological solutions at the border, and some people working at the border will get a raise.

For the next five years, the bill directs the attorney general to add 200 new full-time Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) inspectors and 200 new investigators, along with associated support staff, over the increases already mandated by the USA PATRIOT Act adopted earlier this year. The bill also authorizes appropriations to allow for the infrastructure needed to accommodate the growing INS workforce.

Journeyman Border Patrol agents and inspections assistants with the INS will get a raise under the new bill, which authorizes appropriations for the pay increases starting in 2003. Funding for training is also being increased.
An additional $15,000,000 is earmarked to improve technology to facilitate the flow of travelers and commerce, specifically to develop and expand pre-clearance programs like the NEXUS commuter lane planned for local ports of entry.

The bill also has a provision allowing fees to be waived or reduced for programs like NEXUS. Boos said this allowed the INS to sidestep the federal office of management and budget, which had specified all such programs needed to be self supporting after the pilot phase. “Even if NEXUS starts as a pilot with a cheap fee, it wouldn’t have stayed that way,” he said. “This means they can continue to charge that low fee.”

In putting in place an entry and exit control system that has been on the books since a 1996 immigration act but has never been implemented, the bill direct the Attorney General to set up a system of machine readable passports and visas, linked to the central national security database. The entry and exit requirements are not to be implemented until such a system, designed to limit the impact on legitimate trade and travel, is in place.

Boos said there had been some disappointments as the bill moved through congressional review. “I had worked to include a provision that would have made inspectors law enforcement officers, but the administration was very opposed to it,” he said, and the provision was cut. Until INS inspectors are recognized as federal law enforcement officers, they are not eligible for early retirement and special retirement benefits their counterparts in the U.S Customs and U.S. Border Patrol enjoy. “I don’t understand why they want to put millions into an entry and exit system but won’t pay to help us get and retain good people,” Boos said.

A last minute amendment that mostly cleaned up technical errors and adjusted time limits, also cut a provision that would have lifted the cap on the number of full-time equivalents the INS can hire..

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