- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Concern by U.S. intelligence officials that al Qaeda operatives have targeted the U.S.-Mexico border as a route into the United States has fueled criticism of President Bush’s proposal to hire 210 new Border Patrol agents instead of the 2,000 proposed in the intelligence overhaul bill he signed in December.

Both Democrats and Republicans have challenged the president’s 2006 fiscal budget request, including Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who said it “ignores the stark reality of the resources needed to secure the homeland.”

Democrats say the request shows that Mr. Bush’s priorities are misplaced, both on border security and on the broader issue of immigration reform, and the entire House Republican leadership told the president in a letter that they were “disappointed” in his decision not to fund the 2,000 new agents.

At a meeting of the Appropriations Committee homeland security subcommittee last week, Mr. Byrd said the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act signed Dec. 6 by Mr. Bush authorized 2,000 new agents in each of the next five years and that in a letter that day to Congress, the president called the bill “an important step in strengthening our immigration laws by … increasing the number of Border Patrol agents.”

The Border Patrol hirings are included in the Homeland Security Department’s proposed $41.1 billion budget. About 90 percent of the new agents in the intelligence overhaul bill were to be assigned to the 1,940-mile U.S.-Mexico border. About 11,000 Border Patrol agents are now assigned at the country’s borders with Mexico and Canada.

Last year, the Border Patrol apprehended 1.15 million illegal aliens trying to sneak into the United States. There is no official estimate of how many successfully gain entry each year, although Border Patrol agents and immigration analysts have said that anywhere from one in two to one in five aliens are being caught. An estimated 15 million to 20 million illegals are thought to be in the United States.

The House Republican leadership said 210 new agents instead of 2,000 would seriously hamper efforts to control illegal immigration along the Mexican border.

Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, Texas Democrat, testifying March 3 before the House Judiciary immigration, border security and claims subcommittee, said the failure to hire the new agents would leave the United States vulnerable to terrorism at a time when illegal immigration from suspect countries is increasing.

“The southern border is literally under siege and there is a real possibility that terrorists, particularly al Qaeda forces, could exploit this series of holes in our law-enforcement system,” he said. “Until we have the resources we need … to accurately screen these immigrants, they are going to continue to enter the country.”

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