By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on Wednesday described a multi-pronged strategy for tightening the southern border with Mexico that did not focus mainly on a massive wall President Donald Trump demands, according to lawmakers who attended a classified briefing.
A group of 17 Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and House of Representatives are trying to beat a Feb. 15 deadline for passing legislation to fund U.S. border security operations over the next eight months.
Trump is insisting on $5.7 billion to build a wall – a demand that led to the recent 35-day partial federal government shutdown that ended last month. Leading Democrats have said there will be no money for a wall, despite the president’s declaration during his State of the Union address on Tuesday that “I will get it built.”
One of the 17 negotiators, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, left the briefing by Customs and Border Protection agents telling reporters that lawmakers demanded a list of priorities for securing the U.S.-Mexico border from illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants.
“What they said over again was technology,” Durbin said. “They don’t rule out barriers, they don’t rule out fences. But that isn’t the first priority.”
Other members backed up Durbin‘s assessment of the border officials’ position.
“Technology” refers to devices such as huge scanners that can look inside trucks and cars, sensors, drones and other high-tech tools that could be quickly dispatched.
Senator Richard Shelby, a senior Republican negotiator, told reporters that the administration’s border security experts advised providing money for a mix of additional law enforcement agents, physical barriers and high-tech devices.
Shelby also said the lawmakers were briefed on “terrorists” who were coming across the southern border. While he said they were originating in the Middle East, he did not provide figures on the number of people detected and did not know whether they were apprehended.
For Congress to be able to pass legislation funding the Department of Homeland Security and a range of other federal agencies by a self-imposed Feb. 15 deadline, the negotiators aimed to strike a deal and write a bill by this Friday or Saturday.
Failure could result in another partial government closure, following the shutdown that began last Dec. 22, when Trump refused to sign a funding bill that did not contain the money he wanted for wall construction to fulfill an often-repeated campaign promise. The shutdown, which Trump initially said he would take responsibility for before shifting blame to Democrats, idled some 800,000 government employees.
Lawmakers noted there is the possibility of passing another short-term funding bill to give more time to negotiate border security.
While Trump repeatedly has described illegal immigration as “an urgent national crisis,” Durbin said the focus at Wednesday’s briefing was on “the most serious drug epidemic in the history of the United States of America” with undetected opioids coming mainly through U.S. ports of entry.
Late on Tuesday, Democratic Representative Pete Aguilar, another border security negotiator, told Reuters in a telephone interview that a “range of options” were being weighed.
He said there was nothing in Trump‘s State of the Union speech, which focused on building a wall, that he thought would help the negotiators.
“But our job is to tune out all the noise and to try to get to a compromise,” Aguilar said.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bill Trott)