Members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee said Wednesday that Congress needed to spend more on border security, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised Mexico $80 million worth of Black Hawk helicopters to help fight drug gangs along the U.S. border.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified before the panel about her plan to rearrange resources in order to fund a crackdown on gunrunning from the U.S. into Mexico, but senators told her that was not enough. And the secretary of state agreed.
Mrs. Clinton announced that the administration would seek the helicopter funds from Congress and boldly predicted that the U.S. and Mexico would defeat the drug wars that have claimed more than 1,000 lives this year already. But she did so after having said earlier Wednesday the U.S. has a “co-responsibility” because of its appetite for illegal drugs and because of the gun trade south.
“Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters on the flight to Mexico. “Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.”
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She added, “I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility.”
With violent clashes between drug cartels and a sometimes-outgunned Mexican government spilling onto American soil, the Obama administration has made the U.S.-Mexico border a top foreign policy.
On the eve of the Clinton visit, the administration announced plans Tuesday to send a slew of federal law enforcement officials to beef up security at border crossings, aiming to cut the gun trade that Mrs. Clinton would later mention.
But at a Wednesday hearing, members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee told Ms. Napolitano, David W. Ogden, deputy attorney general, and James B. Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, that the situation warrants new congressional appropriations in spite of the mammoth federal budget deficits.
“We’ve got a lot of conflict about the budget, but this is one area where I think most Americans would cheer if we spent some money wisely,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “I can’t think of a better use of our time and public dollars than to come up with a more robust presence on the border, whether it be military or other agencies involved. I don’t think you should have to put off purchases. I think we’re missing the boat here.”
Asked for specific locations from where the federal employees, including Border Patrol and immigration agents, will come, Ms. Napolitano said she did not have the specifics but that the agents would not be relocated from the northern border with Canada.
“There are literally a few from here, a few from there,” she said.
Nearly 400 additional border officers and nearly 100 additional immigration officials will be deployed at a cost of $184 million from reprogrammed funds and a cutback on equipment spending.
Ms. Napolitano said federal agencies also will increase intelligence gathering and coordinate efforts with Mexican customs officials, but she said the new administration had not decided whether to send more National Guard members to the border.
About 5,300 people were slain in drug-related fighting along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2008, but Mrs. Clinton said the helicopters, which Congress still must fund, will help Mexico eradicate drug violence.
“The criminals and kingpins spreading violence are trying to corrode the foundations of law, order, friendship and trust between us,” Mrs. Clinton told a press conference after she arrived in Mexico City for her visit. “They will fail.”
“These aircraft will help Mexican police respond aggressively and successfully to the threats coming from the cartels,” she said of the helicopters.
Ms. Napolitano also will travel to Mexico in April, and the panel urged her to report back to them on her findings and to request more funding. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. plans a Mexico trip too, and the series of visits will culminate with an April 16-17 summit between President Obama and Mexican President Vicente Calderon.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and committee chairman, told Ms. Napolitano he would introduce an amendment to the budget to increase funding for the government to pursue gunrunners.
“We may have a friendly disagreement. I may try to get you more resources than you are asking for,” Mr. Lieberman said.
“I’m concerned that transferring those resources from other parts of the country is not sustainable in the long term, and probably doesn’t allow you to do everything we want to equip you to do on the border without increasing the overall resources available to the department,” he said.
Mr. Lieberman asked Ms. Napolitano whether any of the guns being smuggled were purchased at gun shows and whether further restrictions on such sales would stem the flow of guns.
“Anecdotally, a number have been purchased at gun shows,” Ms. Napolitano said, though she added that such legislation would “take awhile to wind its way through” Congress.
“So, my view is, ‘I’ve got to play the hand of cards I have,’ ” Ms. Napolitano said. “And the hand of cards I have allows me to do southbound seizures; and the hand of cards I have allows me to increase intelligence gathering; and the hand of cards I have allows me to coordinate better with Mexican law enforcement.”
“So, that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.
Mr. Lieberman responded: “Good enough.”