Steady progress noted in U.S. border security and immigration services
During the January 18 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush reviewed the steps his administration would take to improve America’s border security and address immigration challenges. According to President Bush,"America needs to secure our borders….Yet we also need to acknowledge that we will never fully secure our border until we create a lawful way for foreign workers to come here and support our economy. This will take pressure off the border and allow law enforcement to concentrate on those who mean us harm. We must also find a sensible and humane way to deal with people here illegally. Illegal immigration is complicated, but it can be resolved. And it must be resolved in a way that upholds both our laws and our highest ideals." They are in essence a firm commitment of the Bush administration to make America’s border and boundaries more secure under the existing law, making DHS services more effective and user friendly, help new Americans assimilate, improve the quality of interior and worksite enforcement with higher penalties against those who hire illegal, and address existing guest worker programs.
Earlier on August 10, 2007, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez had jointly announced a series of measures the US Administration would pursue to address border security and immigration such as improving border security patrol and immigration within existing law, worksite enforcement, streamlining existing guest worker programs and speeding up the hiring of essential workforce, improving existing immigration services and encouraging cultural assimilation.
On March 11, USCIS Director Emilio T. Gonzales announced to members of the House Appropriations Committee that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had lowered original processing projections for naturalization applications. Thus, individuals who filed for citizenship during the summer of 2007 can now anticipate an average processing time of 14-16 months for these applications. That’s a marked improvement from the 16-18 months projection. Also according to Mr. Gonzales, "During FY 2007, we received approximately 1.4 million naturalization applications. In the months of June and July of 2007 alone, we experienced an increase of nearly 350 percent compared to the same period in 2006. In addressing the significant increase in naturalization cases, and the unprecedented increase in all immigration applications and petitions, the professionalism and hard work of nearly 17,000 dedicated USCIS employees and contractors have been evident. I am proud of our accomplishments. Still, we remain committed to doing even better. And, we will continue to improve while maintaining our commitment to the integrity of the immigration process and national security requirements."
President Bush’s fiscal year 2008 budget request for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) represented $46.4 billion in funding, which was an increase of 8 percent over the FY 2007 level – excluding funds provided in emergency supplemental funding. The request targets preserving American freedom and privacy, meeting future challenges, and fulfilling the mission of securing America.
Similarly the Administration is strengthening border security with additional personnel, technology and infrastructure. The administration had increased funding for border security and immigration enforcement by 159 percent, including emergency funds, since the President took office - from $4.8 billion in 2001 to $12.3 billion in 2008. The Administration has also expanded Border Patrol agents from 9,000 in 2001 to more than 15,000 agents today. By the end of 2008, it anticipates more than 18,000 agents doubling Border Patrol under the President’s leadership. DHS is also on track to complete 370 miles of pedestrian fencing along the southwest border by the end of calendar year 2008, of which it has already completed 165 miles giving America a total of 290 miles of pedestrian and vehicle border fence. What is required is a total of 670 total miles of pedestrian and vehicle fence by the end of 2008, and the administration is working on obtaining land to make it a reality. According to the administration, it is also including a new Southwest Border Enforcement Initiative in its 2009 Budget, this comprehensive Justice Department initiative providing $100 million to help address a rise in crime and immigration cases on the southwest border. It will increase the U.S. ability to arrest, detains, prosecute, and house violent criminals, drug offenders, and immigration violators along the southwest border. There has been much concern raised about this already in the American media.
It is also learnt from DHS, that it operates three Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) along the southern border in support of border security operations with the fourth one operational by 2008. It should be considered remarkable that DHS saw a 20 per cent reduction in apprehensions of illegal aliens at the southern border in 2007, an indication that stronger border security and enforcement efforts have deterred aliens from attempting to cross the U.S. border illegally. Now, the Bush Administration has effectively ended the policy of "catch and release" instead adopting the new policy of "catch and return," ensuring that all removable aliens can be removed and sent back. The Bush Administration has also reinforced, effective January 31 that U.S. and Canadian citizens in entering the U.S. must present documents establishing their identity and citizenship, when earlier an oral declaration sufficed. This is part of the U.S. Congress mandated full implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative in June of 2009, at which time passports or similarly secure documents will be required by all travelers.
The Bush Administration is also enhancing interior and worksite enforcement, whereby the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has replaced the old approach of administrative hearings and fines on employers who knowingly hired illegal aliens with a much tougher combination of criminal prosecutions and asset forfeitures. Similarly, E-Verify, programs have quadrupled with more than 48,000 companies verifying new employee. In past 16 months, it now represents almost 200,000 business locations. In 2007, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and ICE returned or removed almost 1.2 million illegal aliens from the United States. The Bush Administration is also training hundreds of State and local law enforcement officers to address illegal immigration in their communities. According to a government press release, the Administration is maintaining the 287(g) program, which allows State and local officers to enforce immigration law, and expanding other measures that help State and local law enforcement official including a broad array of enforcement tools, such as formal task forces, greater use of the ICE Law Enforcement Support Center, and enhanced partnerships to address location-specific threats, such as gangs. The Administration is proposing an increase in funding for this program in its 2009 Budget as well.
And finally, the Bush Administration is streamlining existing Guest-Worker Programs to help keep America well-supplied with vital workers, enrich its media, arts, cultural diversity and cutting edge performance as a global superpower. The Department of Labor (DOL) and DHS are already prepared to unveil a rule that would modernize the H-2A agricultural seasonal worker program to better provide farmers with an orderly and timely flow of legal workers. The Department of labor is also working on regulations streamlining the H-2B Program for non-agricultural seasonal workers. Both DHS and DOL are studying potential administrative reforms to visa programs for highly skilled workers and shortening their work permit time frame so they can use their skills immediately for America’s gain. The USCIS website starts with a US flag fluttering in a hand, "Welcome to US immigration, how can we help you?" There are different ad banners that also take a person through useful hints and requirements for various services, waiting time periods for various visa categories, and general advice on safe and legal immigration. This has been considered a great improvement and information boon to current and future inquiries for anyone wishing to immigrate or visit the U.S.
As President Bush mentioned last year, "Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people and Congress’s failure to act on it is a disappointment. The American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes to our immigration laws. A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find a common ground -- it didn’t work."
The Bush Administration is also taking steps to help New Americans assimilate well so that the American nation is united as before. In September 2007, the DHS Office of Citizenship has already announced a revised naturalization test emphasizing fundamental concepts of American democracy, basic U.S. history, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. This test is ensuring fairness by eliminating earlier wider variations in testing quality. Similarly the Office of Citizenship is also providing additional training for volunteers and adult educators who lead immigrants through the naturalization process. The U.S. Education Department is working on a free, web-based portal to help immigrants learn English. Knowledge of English is the most important component of assimilation.
With over 200,000 employees, DHS headed by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, is the third largest cabinet department in the U.S. federal government, after the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs, but still understaffed given its growing challenges in the 2008-2009 period in so many new fronts, particularly smoothening the immigration process, protecting and securing America’s future.
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