Friday, July 7, 2006

Most of the people who sneak across the border are no longer good people in search of honest work, the sheriff of a border county in Texas told a House subcommittee yesterday, but rather criminals who belong to gangs and drug cartels.

“For years we have seen individuals enter the country illegally,” said Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., sheriff of Zapata County. “However, recently we feel that many of these persons are no longer entering the country to look for legitimate employment. We are now seeing that many of these persons are members of ruthless and violent gangs.”

Sheriff Gonzalez’s testimony before the House International Relations subcommittee was part of a series of “field hearings” held across the country to gauge voter opinion on reforming the nation’s immigration laws. Yesterday’s hearing was held in Laredo, in Zapata County.

“Some areas can accurately be described as a war zone,” panel Chairman Ed Royce, California Republican, told The Washington Times after touring the border near Laredo.

Sheriff Gonzalez told members of the subcommittee that the number of illegal aliens from places other than Mexico — including countries on terrorist watch lists — caught crossing the border has more than quintupled in the past four years. Increasingly, he said, they try blending in to look like Mexicans crossing the border in search of honest work.

With more than 165,000 illegal aliens caught in fiscal 2005, Sheriff Gonzalez said, he can only imagine how many succeed in getting across.

“I dare to say that at any given time, daytime or nighttime, one can get on a boat and traverse back and forth between Texas and Mexico and not get caught,” he said. “If smugglers can bring in tons of marijuana and cocaine at one time and can smuggle 20-30 persons at one time, one can just imagine how easy it would be to bring in two to three terrorists or their weapons of mass destruction across the river and not be detected.”

Reynaldo M. Garza, acting chief patrol agent for the Laredo Sector, also told members of the subcommittee that the number of violent incidents at points of entry to the U.S. have increased dramatically in recent years.

The testimony comes as Congress tries to work out a compromise between House and Senate versions of immigration reform legislation.

House Republicans want to secure the border first and deal with thorny issues such as a guest-worker program after the borders have been bolstered. Senate Democrats, along with key Republicans such as Majority Leader Bill Frist, want a bill that handles all aspects of immigration reform at the same time.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat, said the hearings were about politics, not policy.

“Congress needs to get back to work in Washington to reach a compromise agreement on comprehensive border security and immigration reform legislation,” Mr. Reyes said.

The audience in Laredo was full of activists on both sides of the issue.

Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, said to cheers that if the U.S. is protecting the borders of other nations, it should also be protecting its own.

“It’s a national security issue to protect our borders from those who wish to do us harm,” he said.

Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, Texas Democratic, said the proceedings were a “false promise.”

“This hearing will do nothing to secure our borders,” he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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