Border Patrol to beef up 643 new agents expected in Ariz.

Mike Madden Republic Washington Bureau Dec. 7, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - The Border Patrol will send 643 new agents to Arizona by next October, an increase of about 22 percent that federal officials say will help slow the tide of illegal immigration.

The increase announced Tuesday would give Arizona more than 3,500 agents, more than a quarter of the Border Patrol's entire force. Last year, more than half of the 1.2 million arrests the Border Patrol made were in Arizona.

In all, there will be 1,700 new agents added and be deployed to California, Texas and New Mexico, bringing the total number to nearly 13,000, Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said.

Arizona will get the largest share of the 1,700 new agents, with 440 going to the Tucson Sector and 203 going to Yuma. The Tucson Sector also will get $35 million for new roads, barriers, lights and fencing, Aguilar said.

The increase is part of the Bush administration's plan for dealing with illegal immigration. Although the additional border agents may help, officials say it would take a crackdown on employers who hired illegal workers to really address the problem.

The Border Patrol has increased the number of agents by 8,000 agents since 1986, not including the 1,700 announced Tuesday. Still, more than half a million undocumented immigrants arrive in the United States every year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan public policy center in Washington.

Ray Borane is the mayor of Douglas, a border community in southeastern Arizona located along one of the country's busiest routes for illegal immigration. He called the latest increase in agents "a waste of time, money and effort."

"If (you) really want to stop the illegal immigration problem through enforcement, you've got to focus on the workplace," Borane said.

Jose Garza, spokesman for the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol, said most of its additional agents will be deployed along the international border with Mexico to serve as a deterrent to illegal immigration. The Tucson Sector remains the most popular route for illegal immigration in the country. New agents also will be used to beef up highway checkpoints, add roving patrols and increase units to patrol airports and bus terminals in Phoenix, Garza said.

"The message we are trying to send out is the likelihood of you being apprehended in Tucson Sector is very high," Garza said.

A steady buildup of Border Patrol agents from about 700 in 1996 to about 2,300 this year has helped reduce the flow of illegal immigration through the Tucson Sector. During the last fiscal year, Border Patrol agents assigned to the Tucson Sector made 438,932 apprehensions, down 11 percent from the year before, Garza said.

The buildup in Tucson has pushed traffic west to the Yuma area. During the past fiscal year, Border Patrol agents there made 138,486 apprehensions, a 41 percent increase from the year before, said Ben Vik, a patrol spokesman.

In the past, the Border Patrol has had trouble recruiting and retaining agents. Officials say they may have to speed recruitment and training to deliver the agents promised by next fall. Only 479 are enrolled in its academy now.

"By the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30), these agents will be assigned, either on the ground, in training or in some semblance of training on the ground," Aguilar said.

The plan for new agents comes as Congress prepares for what will likely be a fierce debate over immigration. The House will consider legislation next week to increase security along the border and require employers to verify that prospective workers are in the country legally.

Congress included money to hire the new agents in the Department of Homeland Security's fiscal 2006 budget and in legislation to pay for the Iraq war. President Bush broadly outlined the administration's plan in stops in Arizona and Texas last week. Both Democrats and Republicans say immigration could be a major campaign issue in elections around the country next year.

Arizona lawmakers said the new agents could help.

"For years, we've been trying to get the federal government to understand the size and scope of our border problem in Arizona and commit the necessary resources to deal with it," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "It's very gratifying to finally see all that effort begin to pay off."

But Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said the Border Patrol can't stop illegal immigration on its own.

"It's good news as far as it goes," he said. "I would just caution everyone to not be completely taken in by these numbers. It's simplistic to believe our broken immigration system can be fixed at our borders alone."

Reporter Daniel Gonzalez contributed to this article.

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