Tuesday, May 31, 2005

U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints near the Mexican border are essential in stopping the flow of illegal aliens and drugs into America, say law-enforcement authorities, but permanent checkpoints in southern Arizona are not allowed.

While Border Patrol agents in Arizona accounted for more than half of the 1.15 million illegals caught last year, Congress — led by Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican — steadfastly has approved appropriation bills that prohibit permanent checkpoints along a 260-mile section of the Arizona border known as the Tucson sector.

Tucson is the only one of 20 Border Patrol sectors nationwide not permitted to set up permanent checkpoints.

Last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, agents working at permanent checkpoints in the other 19 sectors detained more than 51,000 illegal aliens — about 140 a day — and seized nearly 450,000 pounds of marijuana and cocaine, valued at more than $700 million.

Mr. Kolbe, senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, has vigorously argued that permanent checkpoints are not the best use of available Border Patrol resources, saying: “If it’s permanent, then everyone knows where the checkpoint is and they just go around it.”

In helping to draft legislation blocking the creation of permanent checkpoints in the Tucson sector, which he represents, Mr. Kolbe has said taxpayer funds could better be used “towards additional vehicles, night-vision gear, sensors, lights, fencing or other needed equipment.”

While Mr. Kolbe has endorsed the use of “tactical mobile checkpoints that move from place to place,” Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar, who formerly headed the Tucson sector, told a Senate subcommittee last month that permanent checkpoints south of Tucson would help agents apprehend more illegal aliens trying to sneak into the United States.

Mr. Aguilar testified before a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee that agents “cannot control our borders by merely enforcing the line,” adding that the Border Patrol strategy “incorporates a defense-in-depth component” to include permanent checkpoints away from the border.

“Checkpoints are critical to our patrol efforts,” he said. “Permanent checkpoints allow the Border Patrol to establish an important second layer of defense.”

Border Patrol field agents in Arizona said the state’s terrain, coupled with a limited number of highways, creates “choke points” ideal for permanent checkpoints, and that illegals who attempt to go around are targeted by mobile Border Patrol units routinely assigned as a part of a checkpoint operation.

They also said temporary checkpoints offer little if any protection against the elements, including temperatures in Arizona that often exceed 110 degrees, and that permanent checkpoints allow for the installation of improved radio and telephone communications.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, who oversees the Border Patrol, told a House committee this month that permanent checkpoints are “critical” in controlling illegal immigration, adding that CBP cannot secure the border unless “our apprehensions demonstrate the futility of attempting to enter the United States illegally.”

In testimony before the House Government Reform Committee, Mr. Bonner said permanent checkpoints “deny major routes of egress from the borders to smugglers intent on delivering people, drugs and other contraband.”

The issue of permanent checkpoints is under review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a report is due shortly. Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for Mr. Kolbe, said the GAO review is continuing and that the congressman had met with investigators.

In 1997, Mr. Kolbe successfully killed a $1 million allocation by Congress for the construction of a permanent checkpoint on Interstate 19 north of Nogales, after area residents complained it would disrupt traffic and lead to increased numbers of illegal aliens crossing through residential areas.

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