Matt York  /  AP file
The Arizona border with Mexico is the primary artery for illegal entry into the United States.  Nearly 600,000 of the more than 1 million undocumented immigrants detained by U.S. authorities last year, crossed that border.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
updated 3/30/2005 7:00:36 PM ET 2005-03-31T00:00:36

Customs and Border Protection officials formally kicked off a sweeping initiative Wednesday intended to stem the flood of illegal immigration along the Arizona-Mexican border.

This 389-mile stretch of border accounts for more illegal crossings than anywhere else in the country and has considerable potential for terrorist infiltration, government officials said.

The effort builds on a year-old program known as the Arizona Border Control Initiative. More than 500 experienced and newly trained Border Patrol agents will be added to the area over the course of a year, bringing the total number of agents stationed on the Arizona border to 3,000, officials said.  In addition, 20 helicopters -- including four Black Hawks -- and three airplanes will join the patrol efforts. 

The operation “is nothing less than a full court press,” said Richard Bonner, commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection unit, promising the effort would gain control of “what is the weakest part of our border with Mexico.”

Bonner called the issue one of national security, saying the initiative also would thwart potential terrorist infiltration.  “As daunting as it is, the Department of Homeland Security is determined to establish control of the Arizona border,” Bonner said.  However, he acknowledged the process wouldn’t happen over night, nor would it be an easy task.

More than 1 million apprehensions took place along the entire southwest border in the last fiscal year, with nearly 600,000 of those made in Arizona alone, Bonner said. 

But even with the increase in apprehensions, the tide of illegal immigration hasn’t slowed.  Although exact numbers aren’t available, Bonner acknowledged that perhaps 300,000 to 400,000 people who illegally cross into the United States escape detection. 

Political implications
Wednesday’s announcement comes at a time of heightened political concern over the issue of border security.  President Bush met his Mexican counterpart, President Vicente Fox, earlier this month and the two pledged to increase cooperation on border security operations. 

Meanwhile, a citizen-led movement called the “Minuteman Project” has gathered considerable attention.  The project claims it has recruited over 1,000 volunteers, many of them ex-law enforcement and ex-special forces members, to come and take part in a month long citizen border patrol effort along the Arizona border. 

The group has drawn criticism from civil rights activists, afraid that members of the project, many of whom say they will be armed, will take the law into their own hands if faced with illegal immigrants. 

Mexico’s Fox has denounced the project’s members as nothing more than “immigrant hunters.” 

Minutemen Project leaders reject such notions, saying they are merely observers and doing a job that’s overwhelming the current resources of the Border Patrol. 

On Wednesday Bonner rejected the notion that the government’s new border initiative was in any way tied to the Minuteman Project, saying the second phase of the Arizona Border Control Initiative was being planned last fall and timed to begin when illegal immigration attempts traditionally spike.

The new border security effort has “no correlation whatsoever with the Minuteman Project,” Bonner said.  “This project started long before we’d even heard of the Minutemen.”

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