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Border Security Bill Awaits President's Signature

A bill named after fallen ICE Special Agent Jaime Jorge Zapata just needs President Barack Obama's signature to become law.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the Jaime Zapata Border Enforcement Security Task Force, or BEST, bill that aims to enhance border security, in part by giving Congress the ability to directly oversee appropriations of funds for law enforcement units on the nation's borders. The bill already has Senate approval.

The Zapata bill was introduced in 2011 by U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Michael McCaul, R-Austin.

"I am really excited that we were able to pass a piece of legislation that will do two things. One, enhance border security, and two, honor the name of Jaime Zapata," said Cuellar, the bill's lead author, in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

Zapata, 32, a Brownsville native, worked for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was killed in February 2011 in Mexico in roadblock ambush by men suspected to be members of the Zetas drug cartel, according to investigators. Victor Avila, a fellow ICE agent, was wounded in the attack.

At least two suspected Zeta members have been arrested in connection with Zapata's death.

The Jaime Zapata BEST bill would strengthen cooperation among the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, tribal, local and international levels. The bill received bipartisan support.

Cuellar said it should take about 10 days for the bill to reach Obama's desk for his signature. Once the bill is signed, it becomes law immediately. It is unknown whether Obama will sign legislation in an official ceremony or if Zapata's family will be invited to witness. However, even if no ceremony is held, the family will be presented an official copy of the legislation, Cuellar said.

McCaul said the bill is an important piece of legislation that will give the men and women patrolling the U.S. border the tools they need. "There is no better program to name after Jaime Zapata," he said.

Cuellar said losing a family member in an incident such as Zapata faced is very difficult for Zapata's family. Cuellar thanked the family for "providing this strong hero."

BEST units currently operate under DHS purview. There are 34 units nationwide.

The bill could designate $10 million per year for the program. The BEST teams consist of 750 members from various law enforcement agencies.

Copyright 2012 - The Brownsville Herald, Texas

McClatchy-Tribune News Service