As President Bush attended the swearing in of new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff Thursday, the president noted that "Osama bin Laden has urged the terrorist Zarqawi to form a group to conduct attacks outside Iraq, including here in the United States. We're on a constant hunt for bin Laden."
Well, not quite.
I am sorry to report that, even as Dubya was talking tough about being ready for al Qaeda-inspired terrorists laying plans to slip across the border, his own budget proposal reduces the number of Border Patrol agents the government will hire. The Bush budget includes enough to hire 210 new Border Patrol agents in 2006, which is an increase -- but a far cry from the 2,000 agents he was mandated to hire each year for five years, starting in 2006, as per a bill Congress passed and Bush signed.
The goal of the bill was to double the size of the Border Patrol, but if Bush gets his way, there will be but teensy-weensy increases.
"I'm not sure that (Bush) understands the connection between border security and homeland security," noted T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents Border Patrol agents.
"I'm at a loss as to why they're doing this. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that they're not serious about controlling illegal immigration -- never have been," Bonner continued.
"They seem to have this view that illegal immigration is healthy for the U.S. economy because we have an endless supply of cheap, exploitable labor coming across the border."
That's certainly the way I see the administration's failure to staff these new positions. Bush always has had a soft spot for cheap, illegal labor -- hence his continued calls for amnesty programs that would encourage more illegal immigration. And it's hard to see his decision to pull back on the promised increase in the ranks of the Border Patrol as anything but a willful decision to look the other way -- an outrageous and dangerous choice when you consider that Bush knows bin Laden would like to sneak terrorists over the border.
Republican Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told me I'm wrong. That is "an easy thing for talk-radio" folks to say, Cox noted on the phone, but Bush is looking at the bottom line and at what works. The cost of expanding training facilities is much higher than anticipated, and the administration thinks it can be more effective by spending on new technologies that can enhance border surveillance.
To that first point, Carlos Espinosa, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., had a quick response. "There's probably no one" in the House of Representatives "who's going to say we shouldn't fund extra facilities to protect the country from another (terrorist) attack." The cost to the American economy if there is a terrorist attack would be many times greater than the cost of training thousands of new agents.
And as Bonner points out, the new technology is good, but it can't help much if there is no one around to detain those little dots on the screens.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kristi Clemens just returned from a trip to El Paso, where she saw the new technology -- part of America's Shield Initiative -- at work. The new scanning technology spotted 14 people near the border, agents were deployed, and 14 uninvited guests were apprehended. With the new officers and new equipment -- and a bigger budget -- Border Patrol agents will be able to monitor "constant intelligence" and deploy agents where they are needed, she said.
Clemens noted that the Border Patrol detained 1.1 million illegal immigrants last year. That's good, but there is no way to know for sure how many illegal crossers made it into this country.
And while most were looking for jobs -- not targets -- they found those jobs at a high cost to state and local governments, which have been forced to absorb costs for emergency medical care and incarceration because the federal government doesn't pay for its failures.
And if a terrorist does slip through a porous border, Americans could pay with their very lives.
Cox compared the overall border situation today with a fence along the U.S./Mexico border in San Diego -- he called it "a $14 million fence with a 3-mile hole." The House recently voted to fill the hole in the fence. Now, it should make sure that Washington fills the hole in the Border Patrol.