Who Should Protect America's Borders?

The Border Patrol is short-staffed, but lawmakers' plan to send as many as 10,000 troops rankles some Texans

Terry Norman rarely complains about not having enough responsibility at work.

That's because he's supposed to patrol a swath of Texas desert roughly the size of Delaware. As a member of the Border Patrol for 19 years, Mr. Norman has learned that his job is not one for perfectionists.

"We can't cover it all," he says, resigned to the fact that the 420 miles of United States-Mexico border in his Marfa, Texas, sector is simply too large to patrol exhaustively. "We just do the best we can."

By some estimates, 70 percent of all the illegal drugs that enter the US come from Mexico. In addition, several hundred thousand undocumented aliens cross the border each year. The Border Patrol is charged with halting these illegal entries, meaning that its 6,600 agents are responsible for 6,000 miles of border and 2,000 miles of coastline. The agency is spread too thin, and everyone knows it.

That's why the House of Representatives recently passed a plan that could send 10,000 soldiers to the Mexico border. But May's fatal shooting by a marine of Esequiel Hernandez Jr., a Texas high-schooler who was herding goats for his family, has many asking if an increased military presence on the country's southern edge is the best way to solve these problems. Indeed, they wonder if further militarizing the border would do more damage than good.

Esequiel's sister, along with a number of community leaders from his hometown of Redford, Texas, are in Washington this week, making their case for demilitarization of the border.

By talking with a number of high-ranking government officials, they hope to have some effect on the military border plan passed by the House. The Senate failed to back the plan, and a conference committee will convene in the next two or three weeks to consider the matter.

It's about time

To members of the Border Patrol, the issue is mostly a question of time. In the Marfa sector - the largest on the US-Mexico border - Jerry Agan, deputy chief patrol agent, says he needs about 80 more agents. But he knows he's not likely to get them any time soon. While Congress wants 10,000 agents on the border by 2001, the patrol is struggling to keep up with that pace.

The agency will train 1,000 new agents this year, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas wants the agency to train 1,000 more agents next year. But Bill Strassberger, a Washington-based spokesman for the Border Patrol, says the agency is absorbing as many new agents as it can.

"I wish it were possible to say we will train 1,000 agents and they will be at 100 percent capability the first day they arrive," he said. "But we have to have balanced, manageable growth."

The key, he says, is having enough time to adequately train troops - a concern that has gained increased attention since the shooting near Redford - a border town about 60 miles south of Marfa.

Proper training

Military officials have insisted that the camouflaged marine was justified in firing at Esequiel because he was fired on. But it is possible that Esequiel, who often brought a .22-caliber rifle with him to protect his goats, never saw the hidden agent and thought he was shooting at targets.

Similar situations have occurred in California and in two cases, agents there refrained from returning fire, realizing the shooters didn't know what they were doing. Officials lauded these agents, attributing their actions to proper training. They also say they are mandating new training to avoid more civilian casualties.

But, again, more training takes more time. Despite the crunch, though, Mr. Strassberger is wary of bringing more battle-ready troops to the border as a quick fix.

Since 1993, the agency has nearly doubled the number of agents on duty, he says, and he predicts that by the end of next year it will have 7,350 agents. Armed with these new resources, he says, "We don't see a need for an increased military presence on the border."

In the meantime, though, some worry that an understaffed Border Patrol can't effectively stem the tide of illegal drugs and illegal immigrants.

Rep. James Traficant (R) of Ohio wrote the border military plan now set to go to conference committee. It could allow the attorney general or the treasury secretary to deploy as many as 10,000 American soldiers along the US-Mexico border. He claims that the Border Patrol lacks needed equipment and manpower and adds that "until Congress can find the money, this military option is the best short-term way to address this shortage."

Under Representative Traficant's measure, troops would not be authorized to provide civil-law enforcement or to make arrests. Instead, they would assist the Border Patrol and the Customs Service.

The blurring of the line between the military and the Border Patrol, however, is already well under way. The Border Patrol has relied on military expertise and equipment since 1989, when Joint Task Force-6 was created.

The task force, which is part of the Department of Defense's counterdrug program, works under the supervision of the Border Patrol and is designed to help in drug-interdiction efforts. Joint Task Force-6 supplies the Border Patrol with intelligence, training, transportation, and equipment. In addition, armed soldiers from the task force are periodically deployed in camouflaged listening and observation stations along the border.

The marine who shot Esequiel was stationed at a listening post, and he may face an indictment on murder charges. A grand jury will convene at the end of this month to consider evidence in the case.

Local concerns

This shooting and a January shooting of a Mexican national by an Army soldier near Brownsville, Texas, have fueled criticism of the military's actions by local leaders and border rights activists.

If more soldiers come to the border, "we fear that more tragic things will happen," says Jose Matus of Arizona Border Rights Project in Tucson. "They haven't effectively dealt with the human rights violations that have occurred over the past several years, and now they want to put in more Border Patrol and military?"

But conservative members of Congress say the problems along America's southern border must be resolved. The influx of drugs and illegal immigrants from Mexico "threatens the health and safety and economic opportunities for all Americans," says Allen Kay, a spokesman for Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, who voted for the Traficant plan.

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