Concern is growing at the top levels of government about the US-Mexican border becoming a back door for terrorists entering the United States. While Al Qaeda infiltration across the nation's southern border has been a constant concern since 9/11, US officials cite recent intelligence giving the most definitive evidence yet that terrorists are planning to use it as an entry point - if they haven't already.
As a result, a number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers - mainly from border states - are pushing to tighten checkpoints and other ways of monitoring the porous 1,400-mile boundary. The subject will also be central to President Bush's summit in Texas Wednesday with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.
"I'm worried about our border," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said at a March 17 Senate hearing on threats facing the US. "We have now hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who are crossing illegally every year. And we are now seeing a larger number of people cross our southern border who are from countries of interest as opposed to just Latin American [countries]."
The "countries of interest" that Senator McCain refers to are those so designated by the US government as known to house radical, if not terrorist, groups.
One of the biggest concerns is that terrorists may exploit the current crossing procedures to make their way into the US. One way they might do this - and members of Congress say evidence is mounting that terrorists are trying this - is by paying smuggling networks, especially organized gangs.
The other is through a loophole in the system to separate the large number of illegal Mexican migrants, who are automatically turned back at the borders, from citizens of other countries who are allowed in, pending immigration hearings. These others are referred to as "other than Mexicans," or OTMs, by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They come from other Latin American countries as well as other parts of the world, many of them designated by the government as countries of "special interest." In 2004, some 44,000 OTMs were allowed into the US.
It's not clear how many terrorists or people having connections to terror groups may have entered the US as OTMs. But FBI Director Robert Mueller, in a House Appropriations Committee hearing March 9, said he was aware that individuals from countries with known Al Qaeda ties had entered the US under false identities.
Furthermore, in a Feb. 16 Senate hearing, Mr. Mueller cited the case of Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, who paid to be smuggled across the US-Mexico border in 2001. He pleaded guilty on March 1 to providing material support to Hizbullah and was sentenced to no more than five years in prison.
The most recent sign, though, that terrorists may be thinking of entering the US from the south came from the mastermind of many of the terror attacks in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Last week, US officials revealed that Mr. Zarqawi may be planning to broaden his campaign to include strikes in the US - and suggested it would be easy to infiltrate the US through the southern border.
Of the 44,000 OTMs who entered the US last year, it is not known how many were detained and how many remain free. Members of Congress are continuing to lean on government officials, asking for clear assessments of numbers as well as policies intended to thwart the entry of those who would harm the US.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California asked the DHS's Adm. James Loy at a hearing last month about the numbers of OTMs detained and those set free. He replied that he didn't have the numbers, and as of the end of last week, the senator's office said the DHS still hadn't provided her those numbers.
But in response to a request from Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D) of Texas, the DHS supplied numbers of OTMs registered, by country of origin, who had been released on their own recognizance for fiscal years 2002, 2003, and 2004. The totals were 5,775, 9,139, and 30,756 respectively.
Some countries, such as those known to export gang members, showed dramatic increases in numbers entering the US. The DHS document, for instance, shows 1,463 OTMs entering the US from El Salvador in 2002. That number increased to 7,963 in 2004. Some 2,539 OTMs entered the US from Honduras in 2002, and that number increased to 12,549 in 2004.
Representative Ortiz, though, disputes many of the DHS numbers. He says he regularly hears reports of much higher figures from border patrol officials from his district in Texas, which includes the border-crossing area of Brownsville.
"In the Brownsville sector alone, border patrol officials reported they caught 23,178 OTMs crossing through August 2004," Mr. Ortiz says. "Of those, 16,616 were released."
Ortiz also points out that another loophole is entering Mexico through Brazil, where a visa is not required to travel to Mexico.
"We believe there is an international Salafist jihadi movement with a goal to attack the near enemy and far enemy - the US," says Richard Shultz, an international security expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass. "These terrorists are smart. They study these issues and learn from one other. And one way in is right through the southern security perimeter."