WASHINGTON – In the Senate, they're being called
“triggers,” steps designed to seal the border and end
illegal immigration. Whether they can is an open question,
but their role in the debate unfolding on Capitol Hill is
vital. Both sides view them as crucial to the outcome.
Backers of a compromise bill hope they can dispel
public concern about future illegal immigration as the
Senate considers green cards for millions of illegal
They point out that the triggers include several steps
long sought by the “get tough” crowd – the hiring of more
Border Patrol agents, more border fencing and ways to help
employers know for sure whether prospective employees are
eligible to work in the United States.
Skeptics say triggers have been deliberately miscast to
the public as silver bullets. The result, they argue,
could be another overhaul that fails to end illegal
immigration while ratcheting up legal immigration.
“These triggers have no teeth,” said Sen. Jeff
Sessions, R-Ala. “I don't think they'll do much at all.”
Under the compromise, as amended last week by the
Senate, illegal immigrants would get a probationary card
that would allow them to remain and work in the country
indefinitely. But certain milestones would have to be met
before any green cards – permanent visas – could be
The Border Patrol would have to grow to 20,000 from its
current level of 14,000. The fence along parts of the
U.S.-Mexico border would have to be extended to 370 total
miles. More detention space, ground sensors and vehicle
barriers would be required. And an employment verification
system would need to be established.
The federal government has a long history of throwing
money at border enforcement with little effect, spending
tens of billions of dollars over the past three decades.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration sharply
ratcheted up resources for the border, spending at a
record level to add agents, detention beds, prosecutorial
staff and investigators. With the support of the National
Guard and a push by Republicans in Congress, fences were
built along the border, including in San Diego County.
Stadium-style lights, ground sensors and remote-control
video cameras were installed. Helicopters, balloon radars,
night-vision equipment and more detention space were
Perhaps the most
dramatic change was the way Border Patrol agents were
arrayed. Traditionally, agents waited back from the border
for the immigrants to cross en masse. The agents would
then chase swarms of people in a game that proved
counter-productive. For every illegal crosser caught, two
got away, experts estimated.
In September 2003, the Border Patrol began
experimenting with a new strategy. It placed agents in
fixed positions at heavy crossing areas. The
around-the-clock presence was a powerful deterrent, but it
shifted the flow to other parts of the border where
monitoring was less intense.
Despite those aggressive efforts, the nation's
illegal-immigrant population has grown each year. That
growth accelerated from 400,000 a year in the early 1990s
to the current estimated net growth of 700,000 illegal
immigrants a year. The illegal population in the United
States is estimated at 12 million and increasing.
Proponents of the Senate compromise bill and its
triggers say the goal is to stop illegal immigration and
make future legalization programs like the one being
For example, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who helped
craft the legislation, said its trigger requirements would
“finally accomplish the extraordinary goal of securing our
But what if illegal immigration continues as it has for
three decades even if all the steps are taken and all the
triggers are met?
“Then we'll know we haven't done enough,” said Sen.
John Kyl, R-Ariz., a supporter of the compromise.
Meanwhile, critics argue, millions of probationary and
green cards will have been given out.
It reminds critics of what happened 21 years ago when
Congress passed the landmark Immigration Reform and
Control Act in 1986. It gave amnesty to 2.7 million
illegal immigrants in exchange for criminal sanctions
against employers who hire illegal immigrants. The
employer sanctions were supposed to stop illegal
But illegal immigration accelerated. Employers and
workers got around the sanctions with widely available
phony documents, including driver's licenses and birth
Hence the importance of the final trigger: a
fraud-resistant system to verify that noncitizens are
eligible to work in the United States. But the Senate bill
says only that a system has to be established, not that it
has to be successful or even used.
Any meaningful “employment verification system,”
critics fear, will be resisted by business groups and
other immigrant advocates. A decade ago, when a bipartisan
congressional commission recommended a national worker
registry as the most feasible fix for employer sanctions,
the resistance was fierce.
Even steps to combat document fraud by setting basic
national standards for the appearance of driver's licenses
and birth certificates were vigorously opposed.