A Senate panel voted Tuesday to set up a “virtual fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border – but provided absolutely no cash to do that.
The 8-1 vote came after Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, realized he could get no traction for his original proposal to spend $30 million to build a network of 300 towers, each equipped with cameras and radar. So the scaled-back version, HB 2461, simply authorizes the virtual fence – and delayed until next year the question of whether Arizona taxpayers will actually pick up the tab.
That possibility annoyed Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber.
“What benefit is the state going to get out of this?” he asked. Crandell said securing the border is a federal responsibility, and any cost should be borne by the federal government.
That brought a sharp rebuke by Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson.
“I'm really disappointed when I hear people say this is a federal issue,” he said.
“The border leaks like a sieve,” Melvin complained. And he claimed that has a $2 billion annual impact on the state in people not here legally ending up in Arizona schools, hospitals and prisons.
Worsley has been beating the drum for equipment manufactured by Spotter RF, a Utah firm that advertises itself as selling low-power radar products for commercial and military use. Worsley said he figures it would take 300 of these units, mounted on towers about a mile apart, to cover the entire border.
While this measure contains no funding, Worsley is clearly angling for that to happen at some point. He said that $30 million price tag – $100,000 per site – is “less than the cost of a high school.”
Part of Crandell's objection goes to the issue of what, if anything, the towers and radar units would accomplish. Worsley said the live video feeds would be available to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to use if they want to capture illegal border crossers. But he conceded there's a political purpose behind his plan: Monitoring the federal government.
He said Republican members of Congress have told the Obama administration they will support comprehensive immigration reform only when the border is secured. And that, said Worsley, has to be confirmed not by the administration's own Department of Homeland Security but by those in the border states.
“How do we confirm to the federal government that, in fact, the border is secure if we don't trust them and we don't have any mechanism to verify that, in fact, the border has reached operational control?” he asked. Worsley said his virtual fence is inexpensive enough to provide that verification.
That distrust of the federal government was echoed by Melvin.
“Our two U.S. senators say that the border is secure,” he said. “But it isn't.”
Crandell, however, said the system amounts to little more than a glorified video system to allow Arizonans to keep an eye themselves on the border “and see who's coming across and who's not coming across.”
Anyway, he said, even if crossers are picked up by federal officials what usually happens is they simply get sent back to Mexico.
“It's not the state's responsibility to determine whether the border is secure or not,” Crandell said. “It's the federal government's responsibility as specified in the Constitution.”
Crandell said $30 million “is a pretty huge chunk of money that could go to education” or other causes.
But Sen. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma, voted to support the measure, saying she backs “anything that we can do as a state” to deal with border security.