Monday, February 21, 2005

Border seen as gateway to U.S. for al-Qaeda

WASHINGTON - Rep. Solomon Ortiz of Texas has been sounding an alarm since last summer that al-Qaeda might exploit holes in the nation's southern border, and now the Department of Homeland Security agrees with him.
Adm. James Loy, deputy Homeland Security secretary, said in written testimony that he gave to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that "recent information from ongoing investigations, detentions and emerging threat streams strongly suggests that al-Qaeda has considered using the southwestern border to infiltrate the United States."

Loy said al-Qaeda operatives believe they can pay to get into the country through Mexico and that entering illegally is "more advantageous than legal entry."

But Loy also said there's no conclusive evidence that al-Qaeda operatives have entered the country through those methods.

Ortiz, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, has been urging the federal government to end its practice of releasing non-Mexican immigrants awaiting deportation hearings after they've been arrested for illegally entering the country. The majority of the non-Mexican immigrants released are from other Latin American countries.

Officials have said that detaining the immigrants would be costly. Immigration and Customs Enforcement keeps in custody those who have committed crimes or are considered a public threat and on average has about 21,000 people in custody daily nationwide.

Cathy Travis, a spokeswoman for Ortiz, said some who are arrested and released are from "countries of interest."

"Brazil is one. It's a visa-waiver country with Mexico. A bad guy who wants to go to the United States can first go to Brazil and then go to Mexico, and at that point it's easy to go north and cross illegally and not be caught or be caught" and released, Travis said.

Countries with visa-waiver agreements allow each other's citizens to enter their countries without visas.

Last summer Ortiz said "credible sources" told him that a Border Patrol agent found on a watch list the name of a woman arrested at the McAllen airport with a damaged passport. Federal officials continue to deny that claim. Earlier this year, he suggested the MS-13 gang, which has its roots in El Salvador and is also known as Mara Salvatrucha, may have links to al-Qaeda.

Loy named MS-13 as one of several violent criminal groups that pose a legitimate threat to homeland security, though those groups are "not necessarily connected to transnational terrorist groups."

Loy also said the United States is a "harder target" for terrorists and illegal immigrants than in the past because of improvements in security since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"There is much evidence to convince us that interdiction measures have improved, intelligence is working, technology has helped, and far fewer illegal immigrants are now able to enter our ports of entry or cross our border than in the past," Loy testified.
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