Wednesday, March 30, 2005

NACO, Ariz. — Federal officials yesterday said more than 500 new U.S. Border Patrol agents will be assigned along the U.S.-Mexico border in southeastern Arizona to combat illegal immigration and protect against potential terrorists.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said the plan will be announced today, just days before the start of a border vigil by an army of civilian volunteers angry about a lack of immigration enforcement by Congress and the Bush administration.

The DHS officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expect that as many as 150 agents will be dispatched to Arizona within the next few days and that the rest will be on the border by midsummer — when most foreigners try to sneak into the country.

The move follows bipartisan criticism of President Bush’s failure to fund 2,000 agents set out in the intelligence-overhaul bill that he signed in December. He has proposed funding for 210 new agents.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council union, immediately said the 500 new agents are not enough.

“Right now, things are so out of control, we have no idea who’s crossing our borders, and we can’t but chase after but a few of the people,” Mr. Bonner told the Associated Press. “It’s going to take more than a couple of hundred agents to seal those gaps.”

Border Patrol agents, who last year apprehended more than 1 million illegal aliens, estimate that they apprehend only about 20 percent of the border-crossers. Last month, former Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy notified Congress that intelligence indicates that al Qaeda plans to exploit the nation’s porous border.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday said the president thinks the country can do a better job of enforcing its borders through a guest-worker program that will allow the government to go after “those who are coming here for the wrong reason — whether it’s terrorists or people intent on criminal activity.”

“This will free up our Border Patrol and border agents to go after those who should not be coming into this country in the first place,” he said. He also said DHS would have an announcement on this issue today.

Beginning this weekend, more than 1,000 volunteers will take part in a monthlong border vigil as part of the so-called Minuteman Project. They will focus on a 20-mile area of the San Pedro River Valley west of here, which has become one of the nation’s most active corridors for illegal aliens.

The volunteers plan to patrol the border and notify the Border Patrol of the location of foreigners crossing into the United States illegally.

“This is what this protest is all about, enforcing the law,” said Chris Simcox, one of the organizers of the Minuteman Project. “And that’s why so many people have responded.”

Mr. McClellan yesterday said the president “very clearly” addressed the debate over the Minuteman Project last week when he referred to the volunteers as vigilantes after a summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.

“It’s one thing if people are working along the border, simply to report suspicious activity, and that activity should be reported to the proper authorities — the Department of Homeland Security officials, who are there to enforce our borders. If people are operating outside of the law, that cannot be tolerated,” Mr. McClellan said.

Mr. Fox and other Mexican officials have said they fear that the volunteers will abuse the border crossers.

The volunteers, who will be monitored by various civil and human rights organizations, have been told not to confront the aliens. Although some of the volunteers will be armed, organizers have banned rifles and have threatened to send home anyone who causes a confrontation.

An additional 350 agents are scheduled to arrive by Sept. 30, the officials said, describing them as new agents, or trainees, who are still undergoing their academy classes. In the meantime, they said, 200 veteran agents could be assigned on a temporary basis later this spring and early summer.

The Minuteman protest formally begins Friday, when volunteers are expected to spend that day registering and receiving their assignments, along with information about the area. Rallies scheduled for Saturday and Sunday will kick off the monthlong project.

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