Panel to review border security initiative

Key House lawmakers will focus a border security hearing Wednesday on what the Homeland Security Department is doing to help fight violent drug cartels in Mexico, including what has been accomplished in the year since the department launched an initiative to prevent cash and firearms from being smuggled into that country.

"We need to focus this hearing on what DHS and the rest of the U.S. government are doing to combat the drug cartels that are creating such horrific violence in Mexico," Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Price, D-N.C., said in a written statement.

Concerns that violence from dueling drug cartels in Mexico will spill over into the United States have risen since the March 27 shooting of a prominent rancher on his property in Douglas, Ariz. Authorities are investigating who shot the rancher, but speculation has mounted that it was a smuggler.

"Conditions along the Southwest border are deteriorating rapidly and spillover violence onto our side is a stark reality," Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said in a written statement.

"The death toll is rising, the violence escalating, and our Border Patrol agents are facing more serious attacks than ever," he added. "This is arguably because we're bending, but haven't broken the backs of the drug cartels."

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin is expected to testify for the first time since President Obama gave him a recess appointment late last month. John Morton, assistant Homeland Security secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is also scheduled to testify.

Price and Rogers said they want the hearing to review cooperative efforts of CBP, ICE and the Mexican government. In March 2009, Homeland Security launched its Southwest Border Initiative that deployed more personnel and technology to the border and beefed up law enforcement efforts with the Mexican government.

"Congress has expanded DHS border intelligence programs and also funded initiatives to create more joint U.S.-Mexican law enforcement units in the border region," Price said. "In light of intensifying and stunningly brutal violence in the [Ciudad] Juarez [Mexico,] region, however, we need to understand what more can be done to combat the Mexican drug cartels, and how DHS plans to capitalize on investments made so far."

The department touts a list of accomplishments by the border initiative, noting that CBP and ICE together have seized $85 million in illicit cash along the border -- a 22 percent increase over the same period from March 2008 to March 2009.

The agencies have seized 1,404 firearms and 1.62 million kilograms of drugs along the border, increases of 22 percent and 14 percent, respectively, over the previous one-year period, the department said. And CBP seized $29.5 million in southbound cash, a 39 percent increase. Rogers said he also wants to review the state of ICE enforcement teams, aviation assets and the SBInet virtual fencing program, and how the department's fiscal 2011 budget request will bolster border security efforts.

The department recently froze spending to expand the SBInet program that was intended to prevent illegal activity along the nation's borders.

"To that end, I have serious questions as to whether the 2011 budget request adequately resources our Border Patrol and Coast Guard operations to take the fight to the drug-traffickers that are infecting our communities -- rural, urban, or otherwise -- with weapons that unleash untold social costs," Rogers said.

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