Monday, March 16, 2009

A fine border line between cartels, immigration debate

The Hill
March 16, 2009
by Bridget Johnson

Fear of the gruesome Mexican drug-cartel violence spilling over America's southern border is reigniting debate over immigration reform and controversial border-security measures.

Three dozen Republican representatives penned a letter last week to President Obama asking him to complete the border fence in light of the cartel violence that has seen Camp Pendleton Marines banned from visiting the party town of Tijuana, the Ciudad Juarez mayor relocating his family to Texas for safety, and a State Department travel alert issued last month urging renewed caution in the tourist destination.

"While more than 600 miles of pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers have been constructed so far, it is out understanding that nearly 70 miles of infrastructure, designated for specific areas that are susceptible to significant cross-border traffic, remains uncompleted," the members — 13 representing border states — say in the letter.

"In areas where construction has been unnecessarily delayed, the REAL ID Act (P.L. 109-13) provides the Secretary of Homeland Security with the authority to waive any legal requirements that impede the construction of border security barriers," the letter continues. "Given this authority, in addition to the requirement for at least 700 miles of border infrastructure, we request that you take immediate action to finish the 70 miles of uncompleted fence construction projects.

"We urge you to also consider expanding this infrastructure to other areas of the border that continue to experience the effects of increased border violence."

Joe Kasper, spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), one of the letter's signatories, told The Hill that the infrastructure "is not the silver bullet, but part of a multifaceted approach" to battling both drug and human smuggling.

Hunter's district sits in a major smuggling corridor between the border and Los Angeles. "People in any border community feel the effects of illegal immigration and smuggling more than they do elsewhere in the United States," Kasper said. "They continue to call for an enhanced security presence along the border. Their position on the issue hasn't changed."

But the leader of the Border Patrol union says the border fencing has just increased attacks on officers, while the director of a pro-immigration organization blasted the call for more fencing as "self-serving."

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, told The Hill that officers continue to be subject to a "dramatic increase" in assaults, with 1,097 documented incidents in the fiscal year between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008. "Obviously, we're extremely concerned about the continued escalation of violence, which has been increasing every year for at least the past six years," he said.

While the completed border infrastructure has had a "negligible effect on border violence," Bonner said, "there appears to be a correlation between the fortification of the border and assaults on our agents."

"The fence affords cartels a degree of protection to launch assaults on our agents without being detected," Bonner said.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), said that border restrictions continue to give drug cartels a revenue stream as immigrants pay cartel-controlled human trafficking groups to get across.

"By sealing off the border in this way, what you end up doing is giving [the cartels] more power," Salas said. "Their money-making is actually increased."

David Hernandez, a community activist and founder of Los Angeles Conservative Hispanic Americans, told The Hill that the border violence presents the opportunity to open a dialogue about security issues.

"When it was not politically correct to talk about the crimes that the illegal-alien criminal element was participating in, if you were to even mention that you were thrown in with 'you're a racist, you're a bigot,' " said Hernandez, who has run twice as the Republican nominee against Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and plans to challenge the congressman again in 2010. "It's become so publicized that for even the most timid person on illegal immigration, it's a real concern."

While the Department of Homeland Security is anticipated soon to announce assistance to help Mexico crack down on the cartels in terms of weapons and money laundering, the border violence may have an effect not just on the immigration debate but on immigration levels as well.

"Any steps that you take to curtail Mexican drug violence will help illegal immigration," said Bryan Griffith, spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, noting that though stepped-up enforcement may help, the violence itself may spur more northward journeys. "Generally, people come to the U.S. to find jobs," Griffith said. "If you have violence, there's more of a motivation."

Bonner said that at the moment the poor economy seems to be resulting in fewer immigrants ponying up smuggling fees to cross into the U.S. and fewer jobs waiting for migrants on this side. "It's very rare for someone to cross the border without employment lined up," he said.

He does say, though, that the possibility remains for a flood of Mexicans being driven north by the bloody streets at home.

"If Mexican violence continues at this pace, then you're going to have refugees fleeing the violence," Bonner said, adding that cartels have shown they will just follow those who have escaped their wrath into American cities to exact kidnappings, home invasions and killings — "sending the message that you can't run far enough to get away from us."

The solutions being offered to the Obama administration to keep drug violence from spilling into America's streets are, again, inextricably linked to the immigration debate.

Salas said it's a question of priorities. "Homeland Security should be focused on the criminal element ... but right now they're busy catching farmworkers heading to California to pick crops," she said. "[Their] duty and responsibility is being neglected because they're trying to catch these low-wage workers.

"The best way to cut the power of the drug cartels in terms of reducing violence is by passing immigration reform this year," Salas said, adding that hope for reform "is one of the main reasons that so many Latinos and Asians decided to support President Obama."

Hernandez said civilian border-enforcement groups that have been talking for years about the potential for increased violence will now move the debate toward protecting communities. "It's reached a point where it's going to force politicians to take action to make it appear that they are doing something about it, whether it's moving forward with more funding for building the fence, whether it's sending more National Guard to the border — this time with ammunition for their weapons."

The leader of the Border Patrol union said that during Operation Jump Start, in which National Guard troops were deployed to the Mexican border to offer limited enforcement assistance to the Border Patrol by observing and reporting, cartels quickly learned that the rules of engagement meant they could conduct business as usual. "You don't scare the cartels by having a few extra bodies and a few extra guns," said Bonner, noting that he doesn't hear any calls for Guardsmen to assume a different role this time around.

Texas Gov. Ricky Perry (R) has asked for 1,000 National Guard troops and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has asked for 250. Obama has indicated that while the administration is still weighing its options to combat the Mexican drug violence, he doesn't want to "militarize" the border.

And though Obama met with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently to discuss potential aid to Mexico, Bonner says that more military aid could just end up benefiting the cartels — as have the U.S. guns intended as aid that are now used by Mexican police and military working for the drug lords.

Bonner said that while having the U.S. military on standby to respond to events such as Mexican military incursions would be a "rational approach," the most important element in combating the border violence is nixing migrant traffic "by revamping the worksite enforcement strategy," thus freeing up overwhelmed border agents to combat the criminal element.

Such a refocused strategy would likely clean up the border, he said, and leave cartels looking for air and sea routes like the Colombian cartels of the 1970s.

"As long as you have such strong demand [for drugs] in the U.S.," Bonner said, "then you'd have cartels trying to find a way in."

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