Tuesday, March 08, 2005

TESTIMONY BY THE HONORABLE SOLOMON P. ORTIZ

Hon. Solomon P. Ortiz
Oversight Hearing on "The Immigration Enforcement Resources Authorized in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004."

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BORDER SECURITY AND CLAIMS
MARCH 3, 2005


Chairman Hostettler, Ranking Member Jackson Lee, and Members of the Committee.

Thank you for your timely hearing about dangers in U.S. border security.

Before I begin, let me state that I am not an immigrant-basher. My mother was an immigrant and I am part of a rich tradition of immigrants in the U.S.

Before coming to Congress, I was a sheriff in South Texas, which keeps me in close touch with the people who protect our safety and property along the southern border.

I want to address a growing, dangerous national security problem originating on the southern border with 3 major components:

1. The release of OTMs (other than Mexicans) by the U.S. government. Border law enforcement officers routinely release illegal immigrants into the general population of the U.S. because they do not have sufficient funds and space to detain them at detention facilities. Captured OTMs are released on their own recognizance and are ordered to appear at a deportation hearing weeks after their release. The number of “absconders” – those who never appear for deportation – varies widely, but is said to be 90% of those released, a number now approaching 75,000.

2. The growing number of Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) gangs, the bloody, violent Central American gangs that are now a serious criminal element in major cities and in states around the country. These gangs are entering the country as OTMs, and gaining easy release.

3. A recent warning to Americans by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico illustrating the danger of narcotrafficking gangs along the U.S. border directed against Americans in the border area, including kidnapping of American citizens.

The Southern Border is literally under siege, and there is a real possibility that terrorists – particularly al Qaida forces – could exploit this series of holes in our law enforcement system along the southern border.

There has been a 137% increase in OTMs in this fiscal year alone – translating to roughly 6,000 OTMs. Of those, 40% pass through the McAllen Sector alone in south Texas.

However, this problem is not just in South Texas. Boston-area police have arrested a number of MS 13 gang members who are tearing through their community, one of which was reported to be an OTM, released by border law enforcement.

Central American law enforcement and news reports note that al Qaida is trying to get the ruthless MS 13 gangs to move high value al Qaida operatives across the border for a large sum of money, we’ve heard about $250,000.

Admiral James Loy from the Department of Homeland Security recently noted in testimony before the Intelligence Committee that there is reason to believe al Qaida is attempting to exploit the southern border to enter the U.S.

This is what we know.

The Intelligence Reform bill passed by Congress, and signed by the President, mandated 10,000 Border Patrol agents over 10 years, 2,000 annually. The budget received by Congress in early February only funded 210 BP agents. The Border Patrol will lose more than 210 agents to attrition – the strength of the Border Patrol is dwindling. Just this week, 24 more Border Patrol agents were mobilized with the National Guard to the war in Iraq from the McAllen sector alone.

Intelligence Reform mandated an increase of 8,000 beds in detention facilities annually for the next 5 years, still not nearly enough to hold all those coming in to the U.S. Yet, our budget proposal provides for only about 1,900 new detention space beds – over 6,000 beds short of the congressional mandate passed in December 2004.

This is a clear and present danger inside the United States, and the number of released illegal immigrants not returning for deportation grows by the hundreds each week.

This willfully ignores a complex problem undermining our national objective: to take the war to the enemy so we do not have to fight the war on terror inside our country, yet we could very well be letting people in our own backyard.

Not only do we not know who we are releasing, we don’t know where they are going. The entire system depends upon the information given to us by the immigrants. Without ID, agents simply have to trust they are getting accurate information.

Local ranchers found clothing that is native to the Middle East and Sudanese money – countries of special interest – and those OTMs are being released. They are showing up in taxis at Border Patrol stations to get their walking papers.

The more OTMs we release, the more we encourage their crossing in the first place. Until we have the resources we need – the border patrol agents, the detention facilities and the appropriate technology – to accurately screen these immigrants, they are going to continue to enter the country. We must send a clear signal that they will be apprehended and put through the legal process in order for these OTMs to stop infiltrating our borders.

Our borders are crossed illegally in waves – the first wave of 10 or so are captured, processed and nearly always released, but while the agents are processing the first wave, the next several waves come in uncontested.

Again, let’s be clear – this is not anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Most immigrants crossing our borders merely seek a better life. In FY03, 95% of illegal immigrants were Mexicans; the remaining 5% (49,545) were OTMs.

Before 9-11, concerns about illegal immigrants focused entirely on the cost to local communities and the fear that Americans could lose jobs to immigrants willing to work cheaper. That is not the case today.

Once again, the OTM issue is not just a concern for border communities, but more importantly for all of us. It is a dire matter of our national security in this dangerous new age.

I am introducing a border security bill shortly that will address some of the issues we have discussed here today. I hope all of you will consider co-sponsoring it and I invite you to my district to see all this for yourselves.

My recommendations – many of which are included in my bill – are on many levels:

• Providing more security clearances to agents so more can access the database – presently only a few have the abilities – or providing more training for our agents

• More piloted aircraft, fewer UAVs – those who utilize it say our air ops is outdated

• In the McAllen sector, we need remote video cameras – they need cameras on both sides of the checkpoints

• More personnel to man the checkpoints and cameras

• More immigration judges

• Some type of roving collection facility to gather up illegal immigrants to keep agents on their post

• Work with Mexico to prevent OTMs from crossing in the first place

• Exchange criminal data with Central American countries to know who’s crossing the border

• Agencies need to talk to each other and stop denying the magnitude of this problem.

We can’t just talk about it, or authorize it. We must fund every single penny of it now, in the supplemental coming before Congress in the next few weeks.

I asked those who stand on our front lines what they would want to say to the U.S. Congress; here’s what they said:
- “Our borders are not secure.”
- “What’s our mission here? We’re spinning our wheels.”
- “The whole system is broken.”
- “We’re releasing OTMs without proper checks due to lack of time and info.”

I want to thank the Majority and the Minority members of the Subcommittee – and their staff – for their concern on this issue and for inviting me to testify.

I wish to submit for the record a number of new stories about these things, and I am happy to answer any questions you may have.
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