An impending sharp increase in Border Patrol numbers is a first step in what could become a long effort to secure US land boundaries in today's terrorist age.
Nearly doubling the border force, as provided for in the just-passed intelligence bill, should at least make life a little easier for hard-pressed agents, who chase thousands of illegals every day. The addition of 4,000 immigration and customs agents will also help.
But if Washington wants to diminish the possibility of terrorist land incursion, it needs to address the larger problem of migrant flows, say experts. The two issues are inextricable - and solving the migrant problem may require a more comprehensive effort than hammering extra pickets on the national fence.
"Finding a terrorist at the border is like finding a needle in a haystack, and I don't know how to find them other than to make the haystack smaller," says Nestor Rodriguez, an immigration expert at the University of Houston.
Immigration was a central issue in the travails of intelligence reform legislation, which finally cleared Congress on Wednesday. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin wanted the bill to include a provision forbidding states from issuing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, among other things. Rep. Sensenbrenner's objection - along with the concerns of some powerful lawmakers about effects on the military's chain of command - nearly kept the bill from passing.
In the end, the driver-license section was not included. But the legislation still contained important immigration-related changes. Under terms of the bill, the US is to add 2,000 Border Patrol agents and 800 immigration and customs agents every year for the next five years.
The intelligence bill orders tests of advanced sensors, videos, and unmanned aircraft surveillance along the nation's northern border, and mandates creation of a plan to survey the more-porous southwestern border with unmanned aerial vehicles. It also strengthens visa application requirements, and requires that states eventually use a common electronic format for the strip that stores data on driver licenses.
So far, reports of possible terrorist incursions across US land borders are sketchy. In June, a Saudi pilot suspected of being a terrorist cell leader was spotted in Honduras, and then Mexico. Intelligence officials believe he was looking for ways to smuggle Al Qaeda members into the US.
In July, a South African woman was arrested in McAllen, Texas, with $7,300 in different currencies, muddy pants, and a passport with three pages ripped out, and she had no visa to enter the US. She later pleaded guilty to the charges. This fall, US security officials were investigating an intelligence report that a group of 25 Chechen terrorists with ties to Islamic militants had illegally entered the US. It is uncertain if the report was true.
Still, the only way to better the protect the US against terrorists simply walking into the US is to decrease illegal immigration overall, say experts.
"No amount of added security at the border is going to solve the problem until Mexican migration is redefined and dealt with primarily as a labor-market regulation issue rather than exclusively as a border-security issue," says Peter Andreas, a political scientist at Brown University and the author of "Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide."
"That way, border enforcement officials can prioritize trying to stop potential terrorists," he says. "At the moment, they can't do this since they are totally overwhelmed with the daily task of trying to keep out Mexican migrant workers."
T. J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council in San Diego, believes increasing the number of Border Patrol agents by 10,000, 20,000, or even 200,000 is not going to be the solution. Last year, for example, 1.2 million illegal immigrants were caught attempting to cross the border - only 33 percent of total crossings, according to estimates. "This isn't like baseball where a .330 average is good," says Mr. Bonner. "This is our national security, and if one wrong person gets in, it could blow up in our face."
Many experts agree the way to lessen illegal border crossings is not to militarize the border, but to enforce immigration laws already in place. For instance, it is against the law to hire illegal immigrants, but last year only 13 employers were fined for doing so. That kind of lax enforcement does nothing to discourage employers - or illegal immigrants who know they won't be turned away, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
"We need to reduce the magnet that pulls the illegal aliens as well as doing a better job holding the line," he says.
That magnet, he says, includes anything that allows an illegal immigrant to live a normal life once across the border: the ability to get a job, tap into social services, open a bank account, and get a driver's license. Many states have loosened their laws in these areas.
It's important not to put too much stock in border enforcement, say many experts. First, many of those who are here illegally came legally and then overstayed their visas. Second, history has shown that increasing personnel at the border doesn't necessarily decrease illegal immigration.
"Identifying terrorists among the hundreds of millions of persons who enter the US each year requires a great deal more and better intelligence than has been available," says Susan Martin, an immigration expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "I would like to see Congress spend more money on gathering and analyzing information about terrorist patterns of movement rather than just increase personnel who will still not have the intelligence they need to identify the terrorists."
Indeed, even those on the frontlines are skeptical that the new security measures will make a difference. Ray Borane is the longtime mayor of Douglas, a rambling border town in Arizona where Border Patrol agents are a common sight and illegal-immigration trafficking a major problem. "As long as I've been involved in terrorist and illegal immigration issues here, the border-patrol strategy has never really changed," he says. "It's basically the same old, worn-out enforcement attitude, sometimes with a few new bells and whistles like [surveillance] drones. But nothing is going to change here until [federal officials] revamp the whole immigration policy."
• Tim Vanderpool in Tucson, Ariz., contributed to this report.