"We need more Border Patrol agents, there's no question about that," Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner told members of the House Government Reform Committee. CBP is in charge of the Border Patrol.
Bonner said his team has worked up a proposed increase in agents. He said the number is in the thousands but declined to be more specific, saying he still has to walk the plan through the Homeland Security Department.
He added that the Border Patrol also needs an optimal mix of technology to detect illegal activity. Without new technology, up to 50,000 agents could be needed to guard U.S. borders, Bonner told Government Executive. There now are about 10,800 agents.
The Bush administration's fiscal 2006 budget proposal asks for 210 more agents, an amount critics claim is inadequate. Last December, Congress authorized an increase of 2,000 agents per year for the next five years. Emergency funding approved by Congress last week provides CBP about $177 million to hire, train, equip and support 500 new Border Patrol agents.
Bonner said CBP also is evaluating the effectiveness of using citizen patrols in a more formal way. He referred to the Minuteman Project, which set up citizen camps along a 23-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border in April to observe and report illegal activity.
Minuteman organizers claim their efforts helped the Border Patrol apprehend 335 individuals illegally trying to enter the country, and deterred others who would have tried.
"The actions of the Minutemen were, I believe, well motivated," Bonner said. "There were no incidents, there were no acts of vigilantism, and that's a tribute to the organizers and leaders of the Minuteman Project."
His comments marked some of the highest praise the Minutemen have ever received from the administration.
Bonner said the government historically has relied on citizens to be "the eyes and ears of the Border Patrol along the border."
"We value citizens' help," he said. "The question would be, 'is there a way to ... better and more effectively harness the citizen volunteers?' That is something we are looking at. I don't have the answer. But we want any kind of force multiplier we can get. But if we're going to do it, I think it's important we recognize the border is a dangerous area, and we want to be able to provide at least some insights and possibly even training to any citizens volunteering to go down."
He added: "We think it's worthy of looking into and considering how this might be done."
Chris Simcox, one of the main Minuteman organizers, also testified before the committee Thursday on a separate panel. Simcox said his group, now called the Civil Homeland Defense Minutemen, will set up camps along the borders in California, New Mexico and Texas starting in October.
Simcox told Government Executive that his group is launching a "major operation" this weekend in the Huachucha Mountains outside of Naco, Ariz.
He said citizens will continue volunteer patrols along the southern border until the government deploys the military to the region.
"This is about public safety and our national security, and we're done waiting for the federal government to do its job," he told the committee. "We're basically under attack, and there's an invasion."
He added: "We need static observation posts set up along that 2000-mile sector ... The citizens of this nation give you our permission to spend whatever it takes to man the Border Patrol. What we'd like to see is that immediately done, and that means using military reserves and our National Guard."
Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., noted that the nation relies on volunteer firefighters, who regularly go into dangerous situations.
Davis said many good efforts have been undertaken by CBP and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, but the government does not have operational control of U.S. borders.
"It does not appear, however, that we have been able to translate the lessons learned into a comprehensive plan that shuts down our borders to illegal traffic," Davis said. "In fact, we currently do not even have complete visibility and awareness. There are many points along our borders where the federal government is effectively blind."
He added: "We need to move beyond broad policy statements and get down to the facts. How will we know when we have achieved operational control of our borders? How many boots on the ground and cameras in the sky will it take to get there? What are the funding requirements going to be?"