President Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin agreed at their summit in Texas Wednesday on a common approach to enhance the security of North America, including the security of their common borders. The meeting comes as Congress is considering ways to improve the security of U.S. borders, where a growing number of illegal immigrants are crossing into the United States.
Despite tighter border enforcement since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States continues to grow steadily.
A study released this month by the Pew Hispanic Center, a private research group in Washington, estimates the number of undocumented immigrants at 10.3 million as of March 2004, an increase of 23 percent from the 8.4 million estimate in 2000. The report said more than 50 percent of the growth was attributable to Mexican nationals living illegally in the United States.
Intelligence and Homeland Security Department officials are concerned that potential terrorists could enter the country along with other illegal immigrants. "I think that is a very serious problem, and I think it is not just our southern border, I think it is any border. It is part of the debate we have to have in our country about how does a democratic open society go about the business of protecting itself from people who want to do us damage who are not willing to play by any rules of society. It is a very difficult question," said the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Porter Goss at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
President Bush, at Wednesday's summit in Texas, agreed. "There are some million people a day crossing the border from Mexico into the United States, which presents a common issue, and that is how do we make sure those crossing the border are not terrorists or drug runners or gun runners or smugglers," he said.
Officials say there is reason for concern, citing an increase in what is called Other Than Mexican category of arrests along the southwestern border. More than 41,000 arrests were made in this category over the past year.
Border patrol officials say more than 90 percent were from Latin America.
And Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller told a congressional hearing earlier this month that last year nearly 700 of those arrested at the southwest border were designated special interest aliens because they came from countries where the State Department says terrorist groups are known to operate, many of them in the Middle East.
"I am worried about our border. We have now hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who are crossing illegally every year. We are now seeing a larger number of people who are crossing our southern border who are from countries of interest, as opposed to just Latin America," said Senator John McCain of Arizona, whose state lies on the southwest border.
Congress has taken steps to secure the border, passing legislation last year authorizing the doubling of the number of border patrol officers in five years to 20 thousand. They are also considering other measures, including requiring additional training for border guards and immigration inspectors.
But Tom Walters, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection assistant commissioner, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee this month that the situation has improved since the September 11, 2001 attacks, although he acknowledged that more can be done. "We have never paid more attention to our borders than we are paying to our borders right now. If we are not quite there yet, we are on the way. We have increased the number of border patrol agents, we have increased the technology on the ground, we have increased the amount of training and the kinds of training we are getting, we have changed the entire organization, including the border patrol, to focus on the prevention of the entry of terrorist weapons and terrorists as a first priority of all the traditional missions," he said.
Besides concerns over who is entering the country illegally, lawmakers are also worried about other gaps in the immigration system.
Only two of the 27 so-called visa-waiver countries, whose citizens can enter the United States without visas, are expected to meet the October 26th deadline for having new machine-readable passports. The date was extended from October of last year. "My view is that we ought to know who is coming into our country with reasonable certainty. I do not think that is too much to ask of a visa-waiver country," Senator Dianne Feinstein is a California Democrat.
Another issue troubling lawmakers is how to ensure that foreign visitors who enter the United States legally leave the country when their visas expire.
Senator John Cornyn, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, notes that as many as 40-percent of the illegal immigrants in the United States entered the country legally but overstayed their visas.
Elaine Dezenski, acting assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning, told his panel this month that the United States is not yet able to ensure that those whose visas expire actually leave the country. She said the U.S.-Visit program, a new system for tracking arrivals and departures of foreign visitors, is not yet fully operational
But responding to Ms. Dezenski, Senator Cornyn expressed doubt as to whether any new system would be able to identify foreigners who overstay their visas. "When the U.S. exit feature of the Visit program is implemented, it will allow us to know when somebody leaves, right?" he asked
"That is correct," she responded. The senator then asked: "But for somebody who does not leave, it is not going to tell us where they are or how to find them, will it?"
She replied: "No, but that is a very difficult problem."
Senator Cornyn plans another hearing on border security and immigration concerns on April 6.