Feb 3, 7:36 PM EST

Officials butt heads over border checkpoints

By AMANDA LEE MYERS Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX (AP) -- Two U.S. congressmen who requested an investigation of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector received a response they never expected.

They had hoped the investigation - conducted by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General - would prove Tucson Sector officials were flouting a federal law prohibiting them from using permanent border checkpoints.

What the report concluded, however, is that the Tucson Sector has been hampered by the absence of such checkpoints.

Reps. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., and Harold Rogers, R-Kentucky, requested the investigation in a June letter addressed to Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

The report, released Thursday, did find the Tucson Sector was sidestepping the federal law. Rather than relocating checkpoints every 14 days as the law stated, agents in the Tucson sector simply closed down a location for about eight hours every 14 days and then reopened it in the same place, the report said.

"This investigation proves the inability of the Customs and Border Protection to respect the will of Congress," Kolbe said in a statement Friday. "The intent of Congress was very clear: Checkpoints should not be permanent installations."

But the real issue, the report said, is the agency's ability to apprehend illegal immigrants and seize drugs being smuggled across the border.

The best way to do that would be to establish permanent checkpoints, said Michael Nicely, chief of the Tucson Sector, the only Border Patrol sector prohibited from having permanent checkpoints.

"A checkpoint is ineffective unless you can man it 24/7," Nicely said. "I don't believe for a moment we can have the success we want to have here in Arizona without the permanent checkpoints."

The Tucson Sector changed its procedures in October after the appropriations committee in the U.S. House of Representatives reworded the law, requiring the Tucson Sector to move its checkpoints every seven days, rather than 14.

Now, the sector opens one of its eight checkpoints for seven days at a time, and then closes it for the next seven. At any given time, an average of four checkpoints are up and running, Nicely said.

The policy is compromising border security, he added.

"The law says we can't set it up in the same place within seven days," Nicely said. "What do I do if I get specific intelligence that terrorists are entering into that corridor? If I follow the language of the law, I can't act on that.

"I don't know how that's good for border security. It's very dangerous."

Kolbe has long been fighting the issue of permanent checkpoints.

The Tucson Sector tried to establish a permanent checkpoint near Tubac, Ariz. about seven years ago.

But when area residents complained about the prospect, Kolbe helped in getting a House committee to cancel the plan.

Gary Brasher, a Tubac resident and president of the Santa Cruz Valley Citizens Council, spearheaded residents' efforts to stop the checkpoint and continues to work today to keep checkpoints mobile.

"A permanent checkpoint would be an $8 million facility sitting there for the world to see," Brasher said. "People involved in illegal activities are going to know it's there and go around it. That just doesn't make a lot of sense."

Nicely said the predictability works for, not against, agents.

"They have to try to go around the checkpoints," he said. "We can push them to a place where we have a tactical advantage."

The inspector general's report recommended that the federal law prohibiting the Tucson Sector from using permanent checkpoints be reconsidered.

"No one has identified a reason that could explain why permanent checkpoints, which Congress has funded elsewhere, cannot operate effectively in the Tucson Sector," the report said.

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