Tucson Citizen
Friday, September 10, 2004

CAUGHT AT BORDER: Attacks on U.S. have brought changes to border security

After 9/11, the Border Patrol's mission changed to include preventing terrorists from entering the United States.


Tougher security along the Mexican border after 9/11 slowed traffic at ports of entry and in between, forever changing international travel and commerce and illegal immigration patterns.
Friends and foes of illegal immigrants have noted changes during the three years since the terrorist attacks. Neither side is pleased with the results.

The government responded to the attacks with an increase in border technology and manpower to stop potential attackers.

People who protect illegal immigrants' human rights say the effort is misdirected. People who try to stop illegal immigrants from entering the United States say the effort is not enough.

In September 2001, the U.S. Border Patrol had 9,288 agents on the Mexican border. Three years later there are 9,800.

On the Canadian border the increase was greater, from 353 agents in 2001 to 1,020 now, according to Gloria Chavez, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol.

"Prior to 9/11 the Border Patrol's primary mission was to detain those that crossed illegally into the United States, and after 9/11 our mission changed to not only detain those that crossed the border illegally but to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States," Chavez said.

Border Patrol weapons aimed at thwarting potential terrorists include unmanned aerial vehicles, remote video surveillance and infrared cameras.

Border Patrol officials won't say if suspected terrorists have been caught at the border or estimate the number of people who get past agents.

One man on trial in Michigan, Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, entered the United States illegally through Mexico to raise money and recruit for Hezbollah, a terrorist organization he allegedly fought for in Lebanon, according to Kourani's indictment.

Chris Simcox, a 43-year-old Tombstone newspaper owner and border activist, is trying to do his part to guard the border. He was too old to join the military or Border Patrol, so he formed the Civil Homeland Defense, a group of civilians who patrol the Mexican border in response to President Bush's request for vigilance.

Simcox hasn't stopped any terrorists as far as he knows. He said of 3,516 people caught by his core group of 50 volunteers, the Border Patrol has picked up all but about 100.

"They're doing a better job, which has resulted in them catching more, but more are coming," Simcox said.

To stop the flow, the military needs to come to the border - a perfect training ground for troops heading to the Middle East, Simcox said.

But militarization of the border won't combat the threat because it doesn't address U.S. foreign policy, the cause of terrorism, according to Jen Allen, director of Border Action Network, a border watchdog group based in Tucson.

Allen said the terrorist attacks brought an increase in hate directed at immigrants in the name of national security.

"There's been a climate change that says it's OK to treat immigrants like they're not human, like they're animals," Allen said. "The White House has given a green light to vigilante behavior."

Many Mexican immigrants now return home less often. They stay here, Allen said, because they're afraid they won't be able to get back from home visits.

At ports of entry, post-9/11 traffic and commerce became snarled as the government increased scrutiny, according to Donna De La Torre, Customs and Border Protection's director of field operations for Arizona.

But the government has had a three-pronged approach to reduce border traffic wait times, she said.

First was the merging of agencies to create one entity at the border to deal with people and their documents, contraband detection and agricultural issues.

Second, the government stepped up technology to include license plate readers, radiation detection devices, biometric verification to ensure foreigners are who documents say they are and additional X-ray and gamma ray systems.

Though each component shaves just a few seconds off each entry into the United States, the combined total expedites the daily flow of 14,000 vehicles through Nogales.

Finally, technology including SENTRI and FAST lanes allow regular commuters who have been proved credible to get through quicker, De La Torre said.

Traffic dropped off after Sept. 11, but the expedited flow has brought the number of people, vehicles, trucks and buses back up to pre-9/11 level of 34 million per year in Arizona, she said.

"I hope and I believe that things are normalizing now," De La Torre said.