Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Border agency nearly "overwhelmed," chief says

By Chris Strohm

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection has launched a "full-court press" to gain control of U.S. borders, including the issuance of a new national border patrol strategy, according to officials.

CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner acknowledged in a television interview Monday that the Border Patrol is "almost ... being overwhelmed" by illegal immigration. The Border Patrol caught about 1.1 million illegal immigrants in fiscal 2004, but an estimated 10 million illegal aliens are in the country.

"This is like a sinking ship with a hole in it. You've got to plug the hole. You've got to stop the illegal migration into the United States," Bonner said on C-SPAN's Washington Journal.

"If you don't do that ... you're just bailing water out of a sinking ship," he added. "So the very first thing we have to do is to gain control of our borders. The next thing we need to do is ... identify and remove people who are illegally residing in the United States."

CBP is responsible for border enforcement, while the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is responsible for interior enforcement, which includes removing people who are illegally in the country. Some lawmakers and other officials have recently suggested that the two bureaus should be merged.

Bonner also said CBP does not endorse the Minuteman Project, which called for citizens to converge on a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border during April to observe and report illegal immigration. Minuteman members say they already have helped the Border Patrol catch illegal aliens. To date, no incidents of violence or confrontations have been reported.

"We think it's probably better, all things considered, to leave the enforcement of the law to law enforcement professionals, like the Border Patrol," Bonner said. "And we certainly do not encourage people to take the law into their own hands, and we would deplore any kind of vigilantism."

Last week, CBP launched the second phase of the Arizona Border Control Initiative. It will add more than 500 federal agents and 23 CBP aircraft along a 370-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border, which has the nation's highest rate of illegal immigration.

The new national border patrol strategy codifies that the Border Patrol's priority mission is preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States. The strategy was released last week without much fanfare. A Border Patrol spokesman said the concepts have been in practice since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Border Patrol apprehended about 400 illegal aliens in 2004 for terrorism or national security concerns. Prior to 9/11, the patrol's primary focus was illegal aliens, alien smuggling and narcotics interdiction.

The plan acknowledges that many areas along the Southwest border are not yet under operational control, adding that daily attempts to cross the border by thousands of illegal aliens from countries around the globe "continue to present a threat to U.S. national security."

"Some would classify the majority of these aliens as 'economic migrants,'" the plan states. "However, an ever-present threat exists from the potential for terrorists to employ the same smuggling and transportation networks, infrastructure, drop houses, and other support and then use these masses of illegal aliens as 'cover' for a successful cross-border penetration."

The strategy consists of five main objectives: establish substantial probability of apprehending terrorists and their weapons as they attempt to enter illegally between the ports of entry; deter illegal entries through improved enforcement; detect, apprehend and deter smugglers of humans, drugs and other contraband; leverage "smart border" technology to multiply the effect of enforcement personnel; and reduce crime in border communities to improve the quality of life and economic vitality of targeted areas.

"Achieving the new Border Patrol strategy requires having the right combination of highly trained and well-equipped Border Patrol agents, integrated detection and sensor technology and air and marine assets, and strategically placed tactical infrastructure," Bonner wrote in a letter accompanying the plan.

The plan does not, however, give timelines or other significant milestones to measure success, saying that measuring program effectiveness in law enforcement is "complex." Indeed, the plan says there is no one way to measure the effectiveness of CBP efforts to combat terrorism.

In his Washington Journal appearance, Bonner reiterated claims made by other administration officials that al Qaeda has "contemplated using Mexico as a transit area to move terrorist operatives" into the United States.

"We know of no evidence right now that they've done so, but we know that they have thought about doing so, and that's enough to be concerned," Bonner said. "So we know that we have a national security issue and that what we have to do is gain greater control of our border, and that means increase the rate of apprehensions so that it's highly probable that anybody that illegally comes across our border is going to be apprehended."

Mexican President Vicente Fox has flatly denied that any evidence shows al Qaeda plans to cross into the United States from Mexico.

"In the case of terrorism, we don't have any evidence or any indication either that terrorists from al Qaeda or any other part of the world are coming into Mexico and going into the Untied States," Fox recently told reporters. "And if there is any of that evidence, we will like to have it. But, as I said, it does not exist."
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