An order by the chief Border Patrol agent in San Diego for his agents not to arrest illegal immigrants on city streets or question them except along the border has been overturned by Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of the new Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
Chief William T. Veal was told Friday to recall the Aug. 8 memo, which he issued after protests from the Mexican Consulate over the Aug. 2 arrests in San Diego of illegal aliens seeking to obtain Mexican identification cards.
The initial order directed Chief Veal's 1,600 agents to make arrests only along the U.S.-Mexico border or at highway checkpoints, according to Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials.
The order, the officials said, was overturned after a closed-door meeting at CBP headquarters attended by Mr. Bonner and Border Patrol Chief Gus de la Vina, whose agency has been moved to the new bureau from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
CBP officials said Mr. Bonner, who has given the Border Patrol a front-line role in the nation's war against terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, illegal aliens and illicit narcotics, ruled that the order was "overly broad and restrictive" and should be rescinded.
Mr. Bonner also directed the Border Patrol to review its policies nationwide to determine whether agents are enforcing immigration laws in areas outside the immediate border.
"Under the leadership of Commissioner Bonner, Border Patrol agents now, more than ever, will be able to do their job more effectively in preventing the entry of terrorists, their weapons, and weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States between the ports of entry," Border Patrol spokesman Mario Villarreal said.
"The Border Patrol is committed to protecting our borders while reassuring the general public we are dedicated to enforcing the immigration laws of the United States," he said.
Border Patrol agents in San Diego had questioned whether it was a lawful command and whether they should abide by it -- particularly in view of the fact that many Border Patrol supervisors were instructing the line agents to disregard the policy.
"We were very happy to hear that the order had been rescinded," said agent Shawn Moran, spokesman for National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 in San Diego.
"We hope it's a harbinger of things to come, that the Border Patrol -- under Customs and Border Protection -- is now going to focus on law enforcement," he said.
Agent Joseph N. Dassaro, president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 had issued a statement last week saying that while agents were "disgusted" by the order, the agency maintained the right to determine the Border Patrol's mission.
He advised the agents at the time to "fully comply with the policy, regardless of personal or professional opinion."
"We are all disgusted at the recent turn of events concerning the Mexican Consulate, subsequent related events, and the issuance of this recent policy memorandum," the Dassaro statement said. "The situation in totality represents the systemic abrogation of our responsibilities to foreign governments and interests.
"As federal officers, we should all be disgusted; however, we should not be surprised," he said.
Chief Veal, whose San Diego sector includes more than 7,000 square miles along 66 miles of international boundary with Mexico, said in his memo that the future of Border Patrol operations was dependent on the elimination of the perception that agents were conducting neighborhood sweeps.
The memo prohibited agents from initiating arrests in cities, residential areas, near workplaces and locations where day laborers gathered, and from making arrests while driving to their assignments.
It also described the agents' main priority as the "maximum containment" of illegal immigration at the border and preventing terrorists from entering the country.
It said the enforcement of immigration laws away from the border was now the responsibility of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Chief Veal's memo followed the Aug. 2 arrest by Border Patrol agents of five members of a Mexican family outside the Mexican Consulate near downtown San Diego, all of whom were returned to Mexico. The five were en route to the consulate to apply for matricula consular cards, an identification card issued by the Mexican government to its citizens living in this country.
Deputy Consul General Javier Diaz met with Chief Veal to protest the arrests, while Mexican Consul General Rodulfo Figueroa issued a statement saying he was astonished by the arrests because of their proximity to his office.
There has been widespread concern about the use of matricula cards, which the FBI has described as an unreliable form of identification.
FBI officials recently told a Senate committee the cards posed a criminal and terrorist threat, and were easy to obtain through fraud and a lack of adequate security measures by the Mexican government.
Some 1.2 million digitally coded matricula cards, which cost $29, have been issued by Mexican consulates in the United States and are accepted by hundreds of localities, local agencies and banks across the nation.
Guatemala is planning to issue similar cards to its nationals in the United States, while Brazil, Poland, Nicaragua and Haiti have shown interest in such cards.
The Mexican government lobbied the U.S. banking industry to accept the cards, hoping to cash in on some of the $11 billion believed by federal authorities to be sent home each year by Mexican nationals in this country unable to open bank accounts because of a lack of proper identification.
However, no major bank in Mexico lists the matricula card among the official documents they accept to open an account.
Federal authorities believe the cards are useful only for illegal aliens, since legal immigrants have usable, U.S. government-issued documents.