Monday, January 31, 2005

The Bush administration’s decision not to hire 2,000 new Border Patrol agents for fiscal year 2006 will seriously hamper efforts to control illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, said current and retired officials.

President Bush is expected to seek an increase of only about 200 agents for the new fiscal year, according to law-enforcement authorities and others, significantly short of the 2,000 per year authorized for each of the next five years in the recently passed intelligence overhaul bill.

Passed by Congress and signed into law by Mr. Bush in December, the bill authorized 10,000 new Border Patrol agents as part of Congress’ response to the September 11 commission’s findings. The panel revealed deep institutional failings and missed opportunities by U.S. authorities in stopping the al Qaeda terrorists who crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing about 3,000 people.

The proposed influx of new agents would nearly double the size of the Border Patrol in the next five years as concern increased over new terrorist threats and a significant rise in the number of assaults against agents assigned along the border. Fears were heightened particularly in Arizona, where agents captured more than 40 percent of the 1.15 million aliens caught last year trying to sneak into the country.

Agents on a 260-mile stretch of Arizona-Mexico border, known as the Tucson sector, are being assaulted at a rate of once every two days, according to Border Patrol statistics.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, who heads border and transportation security, confirmed separately that Mr. Bush will not seek funding for the extra agents this year. His fiscal 2006 budget request is due in February.

Mr. Ridge, who has resigned and will leave office tomorrow, referred to the intelligence bill authorization of 10,000 agents as “fool’s gold,” saying it would be an inefficient use of Homeland Security funds. Mr. Hutchinson, who has quit effective March 1, said funding issues within the department precluded such a large increase in manpower.

Mr. Hutchinson told reporters in Arizona that although there would be “some increase” in the number of agents, he would “leave it to the president” to determine how many. He said the addition of 2,000 agents this year “would not be doable within our budget constraints.”

The intelligence overhaul bill also authorized increasing the number of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) agents assigned to find and detain the 8 million to 12 million illegals in the United States from 2,000 to 6,000 and the number of beds where illegal aliens can be held from 20,000 to 60,000. The bill called for both changes in the next five years.

In a letter to Congress during the debate on the bill, Mr. Bush specifically praised those increases, calling them “an important step in strengthening our immigration laws.”

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters last week that he was “disappointed in Secretary Ridge’s comments” because they seemed to go against what Mr. Bush had promised in the letter.

In a letter to Mr. Bush, he asked the president to fully fund the increases authorized in the bill, particularly the number of Border Patrol agents — a staffing provision that was among the recommendations of the September 11 commission.

“Now that you have signed into law the conference report implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, we as the conferees to the House-Senate conference committee are asking you to join us in seeking full funding for the resources it authorizes,” the letter said.

It was signed by all five House Republican leaders on the intelligence bill: Mr. Sensenbrenner and Reps. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee; Duncan Hunter of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence committee; and David Dreier of California, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), which represents all 11,000 of the agency’s nonsupervisory agents, said it was a “mistake” not to fund the staffing increases. He said the NBPC would push members of Congress to persuade Mr. Bush to rework the 2006 budget to include funding for the additional 2,000 agents.

“Foreign terrorists continue to pose an extreme threat to the safety of our nation, and illegal immigration remains out of control,” said Mr. Bonner, a 27-year Border Patrol veteran.

He also described as “unwise” a Bush plan to substitute $64 million for sensors and surveillance technology and $10 million for unmanned aerial vehicles instead of increasing the number of agents, saying, “While such technology can be useful in pinpointing the location of those who cross our borders illegally, it cannot catch a single violator.

“As long as our borders remain porous, they are just as open to terrorists and other criminals as they are to illegal aliens,” he said.

Michael W. Cutler, a retired U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) senior agent who lead major INS drug-trafficking investigations for more than two decades, said it was “difficult to understand” why the administration would not fund authorized staffing increases as Border Patrol agents face a significant increase in assaults, particularly in the volatile Tucson sector.

“Just last week, the State Department issued a traveler’s warning about escalating violence in the northern regions of Mexico, including incidents of kidnapping and murder,” Mr. Cutler said. “These crimes are being committed on our southern doorstep, many of them against our own agents. It’s time they got a little help.”

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