Friday, July 2, 2004

A top Department of Homeland Security official, who criticized the Border Patrol’s arrest last month of 420 illegal aliens in several inland Southern California communities, will meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill today to deliver what he has called a “thoroughly written response” to the incident.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson told members of the California congressional delegation at a June 25 meeting the arrest of the aliens by a 12-member Border Patrol team had not been authorized or approved in advance by officials at headquarters in the District, and he would personally review the matter.

Mr. Hutchinson, according to a Homeland Security spokeswoman, will present his review today to Rep. Joe Baca, California Democrat, who requested the June meeting. Mr. Baca had charged that the Border Patrol “outstepped its jurisdiction” in the California arrests.

But officials at the Border Patrol, now a part of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), said the arrests were legal, within the agency’s jurisdiction and vowed that they would continue.

CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said the Border Patrol, which he designated as a front-line agency in the war against terrorism, illegal immigration and drug and alien smuggling, is “legally entitled to interdict and apprehend individuals illegally in the United States,” adding that in the future the agency would “do whatever is necessary to control our nation’s borders.”

Law-enforcement authorities said the Southern California arrests came as the result of intelligence operations by the Border Patrol that identified inland locations where suspected illegal aliens were believed to gather. Much of the information, authorities said, came from local residents and state and local police.

The aliens were arrested over a two-week period by a Border Patrol task force known as the Mobile Patrol Group during sweeps of newly created “interior checkpoints” in several Southern California communities, all within about 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. The team had targeted the aliens at public sites, including bus stops, in a 3,000-square-mile area of Southern California.

Churches, schools and private homes were not targeted.

In the future, Mr. Bonner said, “purely interior enforcement operations” by the Border Patrol would be approved at CBP headquarters.

Homeland Security has said immigration enforcement in the nation’s interior is the responsibility of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, another agency within Homeland Security, although ICE officials have acknowledged they only have the manpower and resources to target 80,000 criminal aliens and 320,000 “absconders,” those foreign nationals who were ordered deported, but disappeared.

There are an estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens living and working in the United States.

Before moving to Homeland Security in March 2003, the Border Patrol was a part of the Justice Department and did not require authorization from headquarters in the District to carry out its interior enforcement responsibilities.

But several California legislators and immigration advocates criticized the arrests, saying they had caused panic in Southern California’s Hispanic community. They accused the Border Patrol of racial profiling, with some Hispanic organizations issuing warnings to illegal aliens on what areas to avoid to keep from being arrested.

Mr. Baca said in a statement he was happy that Homeland Security had responded so quickly to concerns within the Hispanic community about the raids and “glad” that a “resolution was found to this crisis.” He said the arrests were not an issue of immigration, but “an issue of not targeting people for crimes based on the color of their skin, or the language they speak.”

In August, Mr. Bonner overturned an order by Border Patrol sector chief William T. Veal in San Diego who directed his agents not to arrest illegal aliens on city streets or to question them except along the border. He ordered Chief Veal to recall an Aug. 8 memo ordering 1,600 agents to make arrests only along the U.S.-Mexico border or at highway checkpoints.

Mr. Bonner said at the time the order was “overly broad and restrictive” and should be rescinded. He also directed the Border Patrol to review its enforcement policies nationwide.

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