Homeland Security unveils unified border control strategy

Initiative includes increased staffing, strengthened interior enforcement and greater investment in detection technology.

The Homeland Security Department on Wednesday announced a strategy to stem illegal immigration and improve border security, but critics were quick to call the plan misguided and inadequate.

The Secure Border Initiative covers multiple aspects of border security and immigration reform, including deterrence, detection, response, apprehension, detention and removal. Many of the initiative's components have been in the works for years, including efforts to deploy more technology along the border and expand the use of expedited removal of captured illegal aliens.

Parts of the initiative already have been unveiled by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, such as a plan to remove from the United States all apprehended illegal immigrants who are from countries other than Mexico, and a temporary worker program that will allow undocumented workers to stay in the country as long as six years.

"Let me be frank, the problem of illegal migration has been years in the making, and the solution will not happen overnight," Chertoff said in prepared comments for a speech Wednesday in Houston. "But that is not a reason to delay action, for time is not on our side. We must act thoughtfully and systematically -- but also quickly -- to address this complex challenge."

"Simply stated, our goal is to gain control of our borders," Chertoff added. "I define control to mean that we will have an extremely high probability of detecting, responding to and interdicting illegal crossings of our borders. We cannot hermetically seal 7,000 miles of land borders."

Chertoff said the initiative includes a mix of increased staffing, strengthened interior enforcement, a greater investment in detection technology and infrastructure, and increased coordination at the federal, state, local and international levels.

He noted that the fiscal 2006 Homeland Security appropriations bill recently signed by President Bush provides funding for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents, 250 new criminal investigators, 400 new immigration enforcement agents, 100 new deportation officers and 2,000 more beds at detention centers.

Chertoff added that the department has created a task force and a Secure Border Initiative program office to provide "unity of command and unity of purpose" in looking systemically at the problems along the borders and in measuring progress toward solving them.

The initiative was immediately criticized, however, from both advocates of stronger border controls and proponents of immigrant rights.

"Incredibly, Chertoff is not proposing immediate action to secure the borders from infiltration by terrorists bent on committing mass murder of Americans by chemical, biological or nuclear weapons," said Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. "Instead, he is trying to snow the public with blunt rhetoric backed with impotent proposals that place the interests of foreign governments and special interest groups over the security of the American people."

The Minuteman organization has formed citizen groups to voluntarily patrol U.S. borders and report illegal activity. The group wants National Guard troops to be placed along the border immediately, and to remain there until the Border Patrol is sufficiently staffed and funded to replace them.

Immigrant rights advocates, however, say DHS is too focused on border enforcement, and fault the Bush administration for a failure to address what they see as the intricate root causes of illegal immigration, such as trade imbalances.

"The crisis at the border could be ended just by issuing sufficient visas for legal immigration, thus providing people safe entry into the country," said Isabel García, chairwoman of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a grassroots human rights group based in Tucson, Ariz. "More Border Patrol, more deportations and wall building will not solve anything. President Bush's enforcement spending does nothing new; it's only a recipe for an even bigger human rights disaster."

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said that stepped-up border controls force migrants away from urban areas and into treacherous land, such as the mountains and deserts. The group estimates that at least 460 migrants died trying to sneak into the United States between October 2004 and September 2005.

"Trade and migration are intimately linked," said Catherine Tactaquin, the group's executive director. "Trade policy must include measures to improve the socioeconomic conditions so that people have options other than involuntary migration. Our policies must invest in development that reduces population displacement, [and] promotes sustainable communities and human security."