The Obama administration is preparing to send federal agents to the Southwest border as reinforcements in the fight against Mexican drug cartels, even as officials consider taking money from one immigration enforcement program and using it to fight cartel-related crime.
The deployments are part of President Barack Obama's first moves to boost federal security on the U.S. side of the border.
Immigration officials are considering asking Congress for approval to shift tens of millions of dollars from enforcing workplace immigration laws to the anti-cartel efforts along the Southwest border, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because officials have not made the request yet to Congress.
Such a request could face stiff resistance from lawmakers who want to see that money spent investigating employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
Sean Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, denied such a request would be made and said it was never under consideration.
One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Homeland Security officials have been discussing for the past week different ways to respond to growing violence along the border. The idea of shifting money from enforcement of workplace immigration laws came out of those talks.
Another official familiar with the plans said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, known as ICE, will be shifting more than 90 officers to the border. The official requested anonymity because the plan has not yet been announced.
ATF targets gunrunners
Separately, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is hiring 37 people to target gunrunners operating along the border.
The additional immigration agents could double the size of an ongoing ICE task force that has been working with other federal agencies to fight the criminal organizations contributing to the border violence.
The ATF is hiring agents and support personnel to boost anti-gunrunning teams in McAllen, Texas; El Centro, Calif.; and Las Cruces, N.M. ATF will also add attaches to U.S. consulates in Juarez and Tijuana. Some of the reinforcement costs will be covered with economic recovery money recently approved by Congress.
The U.S.-Mexico border has been a different problem for Obama than it was for his predecessor, George W. Bush. While Bush sent National Guard troops to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, Obama's first moves are designed more to keep violence from spilling across the border.
Obama plans to go to Mexico next month to meet with President Felipe Calderon to discuss how the two countries can work together to fight the drug-related violence.
Mexican officials say the violence spawned by warring drug cartels killed 6,290 people last year and more than 1,000 so far this year, mostly south of the border.
Over the weekend, hundreds of Mexican army troops arrived in Juarez, a border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Police in Juarez have been swamped by drug violence. The move brought the number of soldiers patrolling the city to around 7,000.
Warring drug cartels are blamed for more than 560 kidnappings in Phoenix in 2007 and the first half of 2008, as well as killings in Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Vancouver, British Columbia.