- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

SAN ANTONIO (AP) | Despite efforts to add Border Patrol agents to areas where illegal immigrant traffic is high and drug violence is flaring, officers assigned to the 2,000-mile boundary with Mexico are bunched up near the California coast.

Some critics see politics at play.

An Associated Press analysis of Border Patrol staffing shows that the San Diego sector, with the shortest section of border and fences covering half the boundary, has four times the number of agents per mile that West Texas does and three times as many as most of Arizona.

That is the case even though the Tucson sector in Arizona has been the busiest spot for illegal crossings for years and El Paso sits next to a Mexican city that has seen a surge in drug-cartel violence so severe that Mexicans are pleading for asylum in the U.S.

“I think it makes us less safe,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said of the way agents are posted along the border.

Border Patrol officials defend the staffing levels, saying San Diego’s transportation routes and year-round balmy weather make it an attractive spot for smugglers. Others suggest, however, that members of Congress who most embrace the agency’s push are rewarded with more agents.

Borderwide, staffing has increased dramatically in the past five years as political pressure to prevent illegal immigration has mounted. On the Southern border, there are roughly 15,000 agents, up from 9,500 in 2004.

While the most dramatic growth has occurred near the Arizona-California line and around El Paso, San Diego’s short section of border has, by far, the most agents per mile at 37. That compares with 11 for most of Arizona and nine for the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas.

The 60-mile San Diego sector is at the southern end of a county with roughly 3 million people. It has two major northbound highways and easy access to food, water and communications - all of which make it inviting to smugglers and illegal immigrants. But the sector already is heavily reinforced: Two-thirds of the border is blocked by fences or vehicle barriers.

The border in Arizona and Texas is more open and more rural in many places, which can make it harder to guard. It includes major interstates and sizable population centers where recent arrivals can easily blend in.

Laura Keehner, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol, said agents and other assets are allocated based on the needs of the individual sectors.

“The idea that we politicize where we put our Border Patrol and assets is flat wrong,” she said. “The Border Patrol tells us what combination works best where. They’re in the field every day.”

Mark Endicott, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in San Diego, said the sprawling city’s close proximity to the border, favorable climate and many transportation options make the area unique. “As far as the activity going on here in San Diego, the agents are needed.”

Observers say, however, that politics plays a role in how agents are allocated.

“In many cases, they’re very political,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the agents union. “Congress giveth and taketh away, so you can’t just thumb your nose at Congress and say, ‘We’re going to make these decisions based only on our enforcement needs.’ ”

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