San Diego Union Tribune

March 4, 2005

Immigration-enforcement budget plan slammed
Border Patrol's needs unmet, lawmakers say

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Democratic and Republican lawmakers launched a bipartisan broadside yesterday against President Bush's proposed immigration enforcement budget for next year, saying it falls well short of what is needed in terms of Border Patrol agents and detention space.

During a hearing before the House subcommittee on border security, Rep. John Hostettler, the committee's chairman, said he was deeply disappointed in the president's budget proposal.

"The Border Patrol remains our first line of defense against the entry into the country of terrorists, drug smugglers, gangs, criminal aliens and others seeking to break our laws," the Indiana Republican said.

Congress used the intelligence bill signed last year to authorize a doubling of the Border Patrol over the next five years by hiring an additional 2,000 agents annually. However, Bush's 2006 budget plan calls for just 210 additional agents.

Congress also authorized an additional 8,000 detention beds. The president allocated for 1,900.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, defended the administration's budget proposal.

"It very wisely allocates and increases funds for every part of the enforcement spectrum, which extends from the courtroom, to detention facilities and alternatives to detention, to operations to track down criminal fugitives, to the actual deportations," he said.

Knocke noted that Bush wants to boost the budget for detention and removal by $176 million from its current level of $1.4 billion.

San Diego Border Patrol agent T.J. Bonner expressed frustration at a shortage of detention space that has forced the Border Patrol to routinely release non-Mexican illegal immigrants into the United States, pending immigration hearing dates for which they generally don't show up.

"It makes me feel ashamed," he said.

During the hearing, Bonner was upset when a news video shown to the panel pictured agents in Texas dropping off non-Mexican immigrants at a bus station and sending them on their way into the United States.

"Our agents signed up to be law enforcement officers, not Wal-Mart greeters," he said.

Much of the hearing focused on non-Mexican illegal immigrants, who present a different challenge.

Mexicans, who account for nine out of 10 arrests made by the Border Patrol, are usually returned to the border and released into Mexico in a matter of hours. Many try again until they make it through.

Non-Mexican detainees have to be processed for return to their home countries. That procedure often drags on for weeks, as U.S. officials work with foreign governments to confirm identities, issue travel documents and arrange the long flight home – at U.S. taxpayers' expense.

The Border Patrol arrested 75,392 non-Mexican immigrants last year. Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans led the way, but more than 100 countries were represented on the list.

The rising numbers of non-Mexicans, along with illegal immigrants who have criminal records, have filled federal detention centers beyond their 19,444-bed capacity. That often leaves U.S. authorities little choice but to release non-Mexicans who appear to present no national-security risk. They are sent on their way, carrying orders to appear later in immigration court.

But with little chance of being granted permission to stay in the United States, at least 80 percent vanish while in the country, officials say. Because federal authorities have few resources to track them down, resources are concentrated instead on tracking criminal fugitives.

The result, according to Bonner and Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, is a rising threat to national security.

"There is a real possibility that terrorists – particularly al-Qaeda forces – could exploit this series of holes in our law enforcement system along the southern border," said Ortiz, who represents a border district.

Another result is demoralized Border Patrol agents, said Bonner, who is president of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor organization that represents non-supervisory agents. He said agents are desperate for help that would enable them to protect the border.

Lacking proper funding, "we are being forced to carry out policies that are not in the interest of our country," he said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, joined in the criticism of the Bush administration's funding and policies.

Calling the release of non-Mexicans "absurd," Lofgren said, "I think we have the right to demand of the administration a more aggressive approach."

When fiscal year 2004 ended Sept. 30, the Border Patrol had 11,100 agents, up from the previous fiscal year's total of 10,700, said Salvador Zamora, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. As of January, the total had dropped to 10,700, but the goal is to have 11,200 agents by the end of this fiscal year, he said.

Bonner said the fine print in Bush's budget calls for hiring only 105 full-time Border Patrol agents in 2006.

Border security and immigration are certain to be among the topics at March 23 meetings between Presidents Bush and Vicente Fox of Mexico and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and at Bush's ranch in nearby Crawford.

Also testifying yesterday were two fathers, one whose son was killed by drug smugglers along the Arizona border and another whose son died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York City.

Robert Eggle said his son, a National Park Service Ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on Arizona's southern border, was shot dead as he attempted to back up a Border Patrol pursuit of drug traffickers who crashed through a flimsy border fence while fleeing Mexican police.

"If the government had done its duty back then and adequately funded and equipped the Border Patrol, my son might well be alive today," Eggle said.

Peter Gadiel, whose son died in the World Trade Center attack, said border defenses must be hardened in order to avoid similar attacks.

"We cannot afford to wait any longer before we take border security seriously," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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