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Balancing Border Security with US Need for Workers

Earlier this year, President Bush deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to the southern U.S. border to help the Border Patrol with security. This month, the president signed a bill that provides $1.2 billion for fencing on parts of the border. From the border near San Diego, VOA's Mike O'Sullivan looks at the heightened security effort and the controversy around it.

In this border region near the Mexican city of Tijuana, the stepped-up security started in 1994, with an effort called Operation Gatekeeper. Additional fencing was installed then. It is now being strengthened and expanded.

Major Ken Witt of the California National Guard says troops and civilian contractors are building new sections of fence-line.

"What the fence-line does is that it prevents vehicles from coming through, and also smugglers. Also you will see video cameras on top of certain areas, and that is to monitor the traffic that comes across this area," Major Witt says.

The National Guard is providing additional eyes and ears along the border.

Troops man night-scopes to watch for those trying to sneak across.

"And it zooms in and out and you can focus. And we use this to identify groups or individuals out there," a guard says.

Some critics in the United States and Mexico worry that the southern U.S. border is becoming militarized. The National Guard says it is just providing backup, with surveillance, construction, and administrative work. The Border Patrol says it can use the help.

Agent Monica Monroy says she has sympathy for those who want to escape Third World poverty. Her parents were immigrants from Mexico. But she says immigration should be legal and the borders must be secure.

"I do not think we can solve or the United States has a solution for world hunger. The solution I think may be out there, but letting everyone into the country is not the solution," Monroy says.

On a typical day, hundreds who try to cross the border illegally are detained near San Diego. Most agree to go home voluntarily. They are quickly processed and deported.

Critics say security alone is not the answer.

U.S. industries from farming to apparel rely on immigrant workers. Eleven or 12 million people may be in the country illegally.

Activist Angelica Salas wants them legalized, and says lawmakers must realize why people are coming.

"That they are coming here to work, that they are actually contributing, and there is 12 million people that should be legalized in this country immediately," Salas says.

Maria Elena Durazo of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor says the native-born workforce is shrinking, especially for low-skilled work.

"Those workers, those immigrants are a very important part of revitalizing the labor movement, rebuilding the middle class," Durazo says. "They work in service industries, jobs that are not going to be exported."

Others say in an age of terrorism, immigration laws must be enforced to keep the country safe.

President Bush and many in Congress say the solution is comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration law, an expanded guest worker program, with a possible path to citizenship, coupled with tighter security at the border. But other lawmakers, including many members from the President's party, oppose such measures. Instead they favor making the border much more secure to prevent illegal immigration.