DHS beefs up security along Arizona-Mexico border

The Homeland Security Department announced Wednesday that it will increase the number of border patrol agents and aircraft along the Arizona-Mexico border, just days before hundreds of citizens descend on the area to highlight the government's failure to stop illegal immigration.

The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection announced that more than 500 additional federal agents will be placed along the 370-mile Arizona frontier, which has the highest rate of illegal immigration in the nation. Additionally, 23 CBP aircraft will be temporarily assigned to the Arizona border, including 16 A-Star helicopters, four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and three fixed-wing planes.

"The Department of Homeland Security is determined to gain operational control of our nation's borders," said CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner. "Today, we are increasing our boots on the ground and assets in the air because in a post-9/11 era, securing our borders is a national security issue."

A group of citizens calling themselves the Minuteman Project says, however, that the government has failed to provide enough resources and attention to border security. Members will begin a monthlong vigil on the Arizona border Friday, where they will set up camps along a 20-mile stretch to monitor and report illegal immigration activity.

Participants are pledging to be peaceful and not make contact with illegal immigrants. They say they will only monitor and report illegal activity to the Border Patrol. The group hopes that the number of illegal crossings dramatically declines during April to prove that a beefed-up presence of personnel on the border can curb illegal immigration.

But other groups--such as white supremacists and the violent Central American-based MS-13 gang--have indicated that they also will come to the border during April, raising concerns about possible confrontations.

CBP officials say the new plan to increase agents along the border is the second phase of the Arizona Border Control Initiative and is not in response to the Minuteman Project or concerns about possible violence.

Under the plan, 155 experienced border agents are being immediately and permanently assigned to the Arizona border, while 379 trainees will be added during the next year.

Two hundred agents will be temporarily assigned to the Tucson sector, which is the single greatest point of entry for illegal aliens in the country. Nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended in the Tucson sector last year, up from 350,000 in 2003. The number of immigrants arrested in the Tucson sector now surpasses the total caught in New Mexico and Texas combined.

Critics, however, say the new plan does not go far enough.

T.J. Bonner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Border Patrol Council, called the plan "a classic shell game" and "a major disappointment."

He said only about 200 new agents will be hired, while the remainder are being transferred from other border stations.

"It's such a myopic strategy that it boggles the mind," said Bonner. "What they're doing is stealing resources from the other parts of the border."

The plan will increase the total number of border agents in the country to about 11,000, which is still about 200 fewer than a year ago, Bonner added.

Congress authorized hiring 2,000 more Border Patrol agents each year for five years as part of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. The Bush administration's proposed 2006 budget, however, only requests 210 new agents.

T.J. Bonner also believes the administration announced an increase in border agents this week in response to the Minuteman Project. "The government does not want to be embarrassed by these civilians going out there and pointing out the thousands of illegal crossers that the government is not catching," he said.

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