John McCain says surge of enforcement agents is unnecessary to secure border

Chris Moody
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is surrounded by reporters as he and other lawmakers walk to a closed-door meeting in the Old Senate Chamber for a showdown between Republican and Democratic leaders over presidential nominees that have been blocked by a GOP filibuster, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2013. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted in advance that Republicans permit yes-or-no confirmation votes on all seven of the nominees at issue. If they won't, he declared, Democrats will change the Senate's rules to strip them of their ability to delay. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The surge of 20,000 new enforcement agents that would be deployed as part of the Senate immigration bill that passed earlier this year is unnecessary to secure the border, Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the lead Republicans on the bipartisan immigration task force that co-authored the bill, said Tuesday.

Speaking at a forum sponsored by the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., McCain said he voted for the bill that included the provision of additional agents so that those skeptical about the bill’s effectiveness “would have comfort” that the border would be secured.

“I’ll give you a little straight talk. We don’t need 20,000 additional border enforcement agents,” McCain said at the union forum, where he joined California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra. “But what we do need is to use the technology that has been developed where we can surveil the border more effectively."

The Senate bill would effectively double the number of border agents and increase funding for enforcement. The bill passed the Senate in June with bipartisan support, and lawmakers are currently debating a version of immigration reform in the Republican-majority House.

At issue in the lower chamber is whether immigration reform should be handled comprehensively, as it was in the Senate, or in a piecemeal approach that separates border security from a plan that offers a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the United States illegally. President Barack Obama, Senate Democrats and some Republicans have said they will not support a bill that does not include a pathway to legality.

The debate in the House over immigration reform includes a vocal minority of conservative members who say they will refuse to support any bill that allows unauthorized immigrants to achieve legal status without first returning to their home country.

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner rebuked comments about immigrants from Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, who caused an uproar when he said that many children of illegal immigrants grow up to be drug smugglers. "For every one who is a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds, and they have calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said.

McCain also condemned King’s comments at the forum, calling them “despicable,” and he predicted that the House would pass a bill that includes a pathway to legality.

“I believe that at the end of the day, we’re going to do the right thing. We’re not going to talk about people with cantaloupe calves,” McCain said. “We’re not going to engage that kind of despicable rhetoric.”