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At US border, era of fence-building, manpower 'surge' at an end

A strategy shift is under way at the US border patrol, with intelligence and risk to national security taking priority over adding more fences and additional manpower. Why the change?

By Lourdes MedranoCorrespondent / May 15, 2012

This November 2008 file photo shows a US Border Patrol agent walking back to his vehicle along the border fence in San Diego. With border crossings at a 40-year low, a strategy shift is under way at the US border patrol that targets repeat crossers and tries to find out why they keeping coming.

Lenny Ignelzi/AP/File

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With apprehensions of illegal immigrants at a 40-year low, the US border patrol is shifting its strategy away from fence-building and a manpower "surge" at the border and toward one centered on intelligence and identifying threats to national security.

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To some, the shift is overdue – a recognition that the huge expenses incurred under the former policy are out of proportion to its achievements. To others, it is folly to step back from an approach that, they say, has played a vital role in driving down illegal border crossings.

The new strategy, which border patrol chief Michael Fisher sketched last week for a House panel, is crafted around the idea of risk assessment. It is the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration intends to concentrate on intercepting repeat crossers and other potential threats to national security, according to a recent Associated Press report that included an interview with Mr. Fisher. US officials have said in the past that frequent border crossers may be among the most likely to be involved in criminal smuggling of drugs and humans.

Measures to tackle the growing problem of corruption among border patrol agents are also part of the plan, the AP report said. Moreover, illegal immigrants caught trying to sneak into the US will increasingly face consequences that are more serious than simply being deported. In some areas, including the busy Tucson sector in Arizona, which remains the most popular crossing point, illegal border crossers already face jail time.

Researchers attribute the big decrease in border crossings partly to beefed-up enforcement and partly to a sour US economy and changed migration patterns in Mexico, home to nearly 60 percent of the people living in the US without authorization.

The new strategy is appropriate, given the low numbers of people now coming across the border, says Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Everyone, I think, has started to recognize that we have the assets that we need, and they need to be more strategically and optimally deployed. That’s one reason you’re not seeing new calls for [more] fencing by most of Congress.”

The border patrol has grown to 21,000 agents, and the US-Mexican border is now fortified with cameras and other high-tech surveillance. In 1996, Congress approved funding for thousands of agents and set aside dollars to extend the border wall. The new strategy does not emphasize new fencing.

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