- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

President Bush’s new budget would pay for only about half of the 700 miles of U.S.-Mexico border fence he and Congress four months ago promised to build.

With Mr. Bush trying to prove to Republicans he is serious about immigration law enforcement, his budget makes good on his promise to fund 3,000 new U.S. Border Patrol agents, putting him near his goal of doubling the agency’s size. He also included funding for 22 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) teams to identify and deport illegal aliens serving time for criminal convictions.

The White House budget asks for $1 billion in new money to build the fence. Even coupled with $1.5 billion appropriated in the past two years, this would not pay for the entire fence called for in a bill Congress passed and the president signed into law in October.

“If you mean double-strand or double-fence for 700 [miles], no,” said Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman. The $2.5 billion could pay for either 700 miles of single-tier fence, or 370 miles of double-tier fence, along with cameras, sensors and other technology to build a “virtual fence” along the other parts.

The Department of Homeland Security has argued that only 370 miles of actual border fencing is needed, saying a “virtual fence” would suffice elsewhere. Congress, though, rejected that and insisted on 700 miles of double-tier fencing, even specifying its general locations in the bill.

Congressional fence supporters said Mr. Bush must make good on the entire fence.

“We want to see the full fence built — every smuggler’s corridor is designated with a time and physical description to see a double fence,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who wrote the first bill to put fencing along key crossings.

While the fence would cover about 700 miles of the border, Mr. Hunter said it would amount to 854 miles of actual fencing. He said by his calculations, enough money is either already in the pipeline or included in the new budget to build all or almost all of that.

Overall, the Homeland Security budget would increase 1.3 percent — a figure Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, called “ridiculous.”

And Rep. David E. Price, North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, said his panel will scrub the request to try to figure out what changes are needed.

“The subcommittee will need to take a fresh look at whether essential security priorities would be adequately supported under this budget,” he said.

Border security fared best among Homeland Security Department programs.

Spending on U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would rise to $8.8 billion, up from $6.4 billion this year, and ICE spending would increase from $4.4 billion to $4.8 billion.

But the biggest challenge in meeting the hiring goal is to recruit and train agents.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., can’t handle the load.

“They clearly have to look beyond Artesia,” he said. “There’s only so far you can expand that, and part of the problem is the community itself isn’t large enough to house all the instructors.”

CBP Commissioner W. Ralph Basham told The Washington Times in an interview last year that an aggressive recruiting effort by the agency had resulted in “no want for applicants.”

Mr. Basham said an ongoing attrition rate for the Border Patrol of about 4 percent — significantly down from previous years — meant that 8,800 new agents ultimately would have to be hired and trained by 2009 to fill the 6,000 slots Mr. Bush called for in a May speech that sought to boost the Border Patrol’s numbers to 18,000.

To meet the president’s goal, Mr. Basham — who once headed the training center — said the agency had reduced the total number of days the trainees attend the academy, “but not the training they receive.” He said the overall training schedule was reduced in October from 92 to 81 days.

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