More illegal immigrants. More violence. More death. The public has had it. Now the Bush administration has a new plan. But will it matter?
The fear of terrorism, however, eclipses most people's concerns about traditional violence. In the fiscal year that just ended, the Border Patrol had 155,000 arrests of illegal immigrants from countries "other than Mexico"; 649 were from "special interest countries," including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. In fiscal year 2002, only 37,316 OTM immigrants, as they are called, were caught in the Border Patrol's net. "It's a whole different type of immigrant coming over the border," asserts Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Some 83 percent of OTM arrests were in Texas last fiscal year, and Cornyn says he has met residents of the Rio Grande Valley there who are "terrified to go outside their homes."
Added to this combustible mix are the Minutemen, the angry denizens of the border who have decided to take matters into their own hands by forming armed teams to watch over the green line, as the border is called. Chris Simcox, the Minutemen's founder, says his organization added 20 new chapters in October alone and has had requests to form 40 more, including "interior enforcement" groups that will photograph employers picking up workers at day laborer depots. The governors of Arizona and New Mexico upped the ante this summer when they declared a "state of emergency" in the border counties in their states. "I didn't do it lightly," says Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. "The federal government can't even get the basic things done here."
The boss. Chertoff, an aggressive former U.S. attorney who was taking on mob bosses by age 33, wants to change that. His Secure Border Initiative, as the blueprint is called, was the product of a 120-day blitzkrieg of meetings this summer at DHS headquarters that involved mapping every moment of a detainee's contact with immigration officials from capture to the trip back home. "We envision being able to detect an incursion [of the border] within minutes," Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar says of the end goal. The timetable for realizing the vision? Three to five years. The price tag? DHS officials say they don't know.
As part of the plan, Chertoff hopes within a year to end the policy of "catch and release" that has allowed those OTM immigrants to be let go because of a lack of bed space in U.S. detention facilities. Theoretically, the migrants promise to show up for subsequent court dates, but historically, only 63 percent do. Congress handed Chertoff money for 2,250 new beds this year, but he plans to essentially double or triple the number of beds at his disposal by speeding up the detention and deportation process. He'd do that by expanding the government's authority to remove immigrants without a formal immigration trial. Mandatory consular visits--in which detainees speak with an official from their country--will be done via videoconference. "Catch and release," says Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, "is one of the most significant vulnerabilities in the system."
Chertoff also plans to invest more substantially in "military proven" technology for the border beginning next October, possibly including satellite imagery. A House bill drafted in consultation with Chertoff would expand DHS's cooperation with the armed forces and give the Border Patrol military backup. Chertoff's plan would also have the Army Corps of Engineers install 84 miles of railroad ties or hatched metal barriers to keep cars from easily crossing Arizona's desert border areas.