- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration is preparing to send federal agents to the Southwest border as reinforcements in the fight against Mexican drug cartels, even as officials consider taking money from one immigration enforcement program and using it to fight cartel-related crime.

The deployments are part of President Barack Obama’s first moves to boost federal security on the U.S. side of the border.

The nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, told reporters Wednesday he would visit Mexico in early April to meet with Mexico’s president and attorney general about the cartel violence.

“Our two nations are bound by more than just a common border and we want to make sure that the fate of Mexico turns out to be a good one, because that will have a residual good impact on the United States,” Holder said.

It was not immediately clear if Holder would travel to Mexico with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who is headed there around the same time.

President Obama is also scheduled to visit Mexico next month.

Immigration officials are considering asking Congress for approval to shift tens of millions of dollars from enforcing workplace immigration laws to the anti-cartel efforts along the Southwest border, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because officials have not yet made the request to Congress.

Such a request could face stiff resistance from lawmakers who want that money spent investigating employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Sean Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, denied such a request would be made and said it was never under consideration.

One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Homeland Security officials have been discussing for the past week different ways to respond to growing violence along the border. The idea of shifting money from enforcement of workplace immigration laws came out of those talks.

Another official familiar with the plans said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, known as ICE, will be shifting more than 90 officers to the border. The official requested anonymity because the plan has not yet been announced.

The additional immigration agents could double the size of an ongoing ICE task force that has been working with other federal agencies to fight the criminal organizations contributing to the border violence.

Separately, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is hiring 37 people, including 27 special agents, to target gunrunners operating along the border.

The ATF is hiring agents and support personnel to boost anti-gunrunning teams in McAllen, Texas; El Centro, Calif.; and Las Cruces, N.M.. ATF also will add attaches to U.S. consulates in Juarez and Tijuana. Some of the reinforcement costs will be covered with economic recovery money recently approved by Congress.

The U.S.-Mexico border has been a different problem for Obama than it was for his predecessor, George W. Bush. While Bush sent National Guard troops to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, Obama’s first moves are designed more to keep violence from spilling across the border.

Mexican officials say the violence spawned by warring drug cartels killed 6,290 people last year and more than 1,000 so far this year, mostly south of the border.

Over the weekend, hundreds of Mexican army troops arrived in Juarez, a border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Police in Juarez have been swamped by drug violence. The move brought the number of soldiers patrolling the city to around 7,000.

Warring drug cartels are blamed for more than 560 kidnappings in Phoenix in 2007 and the first half of 2008, as well as killings in Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Vancouver, British Columbia.

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Associated Press Writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.

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