|US Citizens Patrol the US/Mexican Border|
Illegal immigration and what many see as the ineffectiveness of government efforts to secure U.S. borders continues to make headlines across the United States.
More than two years after a government reorganization created the Department of Homeland Security, including agencies overseeing border security, many Americans and U.S. lawmakers remain frustrated by porous borders.
Thursday's hearing addressed a new situation triggered by the activities of a citizen group called The Minuteman Project.
For a period of time in April, hundreds of members of this group stood guard along a 37 kilometer stretch of Arizona's border with Mexico, asserting later that their efforts sharply reduced illegal border crossings.
In an early comment expressing concern about The Minutemen, President Bush called them vigilantes provoking sharp criticism from some members of Congress.
Chris Simcox, co-founder of the The Minuteman Project, spoke to the House Government Reform Committee,
"This great republic is founded and formed on immigration. When you come legally you are welcome. What we have now is out of control," he said. "And the citizens basically have had enough. We hope this will encourage everyone to do something. Because while you are waiting and making up your minds what to do, we are going to continue with Minuteman type projects."
The U.S. government has not endorsed the actions of those taking part in The Minuteman Project.
Robert Bonner, Commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, says while they did provide information about some 200 illegal border crossers, government border patrol agents apprehended 79,000 illegal immigrants along the entire Arizona border.
"I welcome eyes and ears, volunteer citizens, if we can make it work consistently with some smart strategy, rather than something that exposes people to danger, including people that might be involved in a citizen-type Minuteman project themselves," he noted.
Mr. Bonner acknowledges the government does not yet have control of the least secure sections of its border, saying there is a long way to go.
Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, reflects concern in Congress that the government's inability to secure the borders leaves the door open for illegal narcotics and terrorists.
"We all know that drug dealers know, the terrorists know, that our borders are a sieve. This is a serious concern, and I know the members [of Congress] in border states have been working on this issue for a while. We must look to more agents on the border. We need better technology and we need a more comprehensive solution," he said.
T.J. Bonner, President of the National Border Patrol Council, agrees porous borders subjects Americans to greater dangers.
"Even if a terrorist is a one-in-a-million occurrence, with several million people coming into the country every year, very soon they reach that critical mass necessary to carry out another attack on the magnitude of September 11th. This is totally unacceptable from the standpoint of homeland security and national security. We have to gain control of our borders," he added.
Congress acted last year to authorize 2,000 additional border patrol agents, and provided for another 500 as part of legislation recently approved to fund U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in his 2006 budget request, President Bush requested funding for only about 210 additional border agents, drawing criticism from many lawmakers and citizen groups.*
* - Clarification added 16 May 2005.