CLIMBING BORDER WALL
Francisco Villa  /  AP
A man tries to climb the border wall separating Mexico and the United States in the city of Nogales, Mexico, on Wednesday, March 23.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 3/29/2005 5:15:17 PM ET 2005-03-29T22:15:17

The U.S. government will launch a multi-million dollar security initiative along a 370-mile stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border Wednesday in an effort to shut down the main artery for illegal immigration into the United States and secure an area thought to be vulnerable to terrorist infiltration, MSNBC.com has learned.

The operation, run by the Customs and Border Protection unit of the Department of Homeland Security, will increase the number of agents in the region by 25 percent, to over 2,500. The initiative, the second phase of an operation begun last year, is scheduled to be formally announced Wednesday.

The goal is to “establish and maintain operational control” of the border, according to planning documents for "Operation Full Court Press," the initiative's code name. The operation will  redeploy Black Hawk helicopters and significant numbers of air and ground resources from around the country, the documents say.

Some 51 percent of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants apprehended by border patrol agents last year crossed into Arizona from Mexico.

The Border Patrol will be strengthened by more than 500 agents in several stages through the year.

Kristi Clemens, a Customs and Border Patrol spokeswoman, said the operation is intended to “strengthen and improve” the border protection procedures put in place last year, when the government launched the Arizona Border Control Initiative (ABCI), a $23 million operation. That  operation was viewed as a great success, helping to yield nearly a half-million apprehensions -- about 50 percent more than the previous year.

One segment of the Arizona border, the 260-mile long stretch known as the Tucson sector, has become the leading corridor for illegal entry into the United States, according to Wayne Cornelius, a political science professor and border expert at the University of California at San Diego. In a paper, “Controlling ‘Unwanted’ Immigration: Lessons from the United States, 1993-2004," Cornelius wrote that the Tucson sector accounted for 490,827 apprehensions, or about 43 percent of all those along the Southwest border of the United States during fiscal year 2004.

“We’ve learned some things,” Clemens said.  “We know where some things have been successes so we’re going to emphasize those areas and even add to that.”

'Like we squeezed a hose'
The Arizona-Mexico border is now the main entry point for illegal immigrants, owing in large part to significant enforcement build-ups along the border at San Diego, El Paso and the southern Rio Grande Valley in Texas. 

“It’s almost like we squeezed a hose [at both ends] and now Arizona is where it’s bulging, because we’ve closed off so many areas,” Clemens said.

Planning documents for "Operation Full Court Press" note that U.S.-Mexico border crossings are vulnerable to a variety of "human and contraband smuggling" operations into the United States. The documents list “terrorists and weapons of terrorism” as a main “criminal element” along with “human and contraband smuggling organizations that operate exclusively in the Tucson” area that could be encountered over the course of the operation.

Officials from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security recently testified to Congress about the vulnerability of the Mexican border to potential terrorist infiltration, although each said there is no conclusive evidence that such a plot is underway.

“We are concerned, Homeland Security is concerned about special interest aliens entering the United States,” FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress, using the Bureau’s phrase for people from countries known to harbor al-Qaida operatives.

Deterrence, risk questioned
Despite the success of last year’s effort, the flow of illegal migration seems to have had little effect on the numbers of those attempting illegal migration.

“These guys really want to get in,” said Clemens.  “They have an economic incentive to get in, you see some trying over and over and over again,” she said.  “Why hasn’t it been a deterrent?  I think it has,” Clemens said, “you also have to look at our numbers in San Diego and some in Texas, they are way down,” leaving Arizona has the main problem area, she said.

But those who study the issue maintain that such efforts have little or no real deterrent effect.  “The ‘ABC Initiative’ is tantamount to tossing another boulder in the stream,” said Cornelius. In January he interviewed more than 600 Mexican immigrants who recently returned to their home communities.  Overwhelmingly Cornelius said he found that tougher border enforcement “has had no deterrent effect on the likelihood that someone would cross the border illegally.” 

Knowledge of increased border enforcement and even first hand knowledge of someone that has died attempting entry into the U.S. doesn’t have a deterrent effect, he said.  “Migrants and people-smugglers are avoiding, end-running, the most heavily fortified areas,” he said.  “They know perfectly well where these are. Their probability of being apprehended is still low enough to justify the physical risks.”

The vulnerability factor
A federal law enforcement agent familiar with "Operation Full Court Press" voiced concern that critical areas of the country, already deemed to be “high interest targets” for terrorists, were being left vulnerable because so many resources were being shifted to Operation Full Court Press.

“Anyone determined to enter this country in a clandestine fashion will know shortly or already knows about this operation,” the federal agent told MSNBC.com on the condition of anonymity. “They will also know that we have finite resources … the vulnerability is huge for it will make it easier to cross the border in other places,” the agent said.

In addition, shifting assets to the Arizona border for an extended time significantly decreases the investigative support those resources provide for other anti-terrorism operations, such as the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, the agent said.  “Foolish placement of all of ones assets in one place will allow the enemy to sneak in behind you and hit you where you are vulnerable,” he said.

CPB’s Clemens acknowledges such potential but maintains that because there is now a single agency responsible for border protection the agency has greatly expanded its flexibility and mobility.  CPB officials will be briefed daily, Clemens said, and if a problem is noted, such as a surge in apprehensions in another border area, resources will be shifted from Arizona to deal with the problem. 

And no area, Clemens insists, is being left vulnerable. 

“A lot of work has gone into figuring out that delicate balance (of shifting resources), taking some air assets, taking some personnel borrowing, if you will… from areas were it’s deemed it will not leave them vulnerable,” Clemens said.  “We have a limited number of resources and have got to do the best job with what we currently have.”

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