The message at the border

Posted: Sep 09, 2004 12:00 AM

 Last week, as the nation approached the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the delegates to the Republican National Convention convened in the city that suffered the greatest loss of life on that infamous day, and approved platform language on the Border Patrol that is difficult to take seriously.
Says the platform: ?We must strengthen our Border Patrol to stop illegal crossings, and we will equip the Border Patrol with the tools, technologies, structures and sufficient force necessary to secure the border.?

 Why is it difficult to take this seriously?

 An Associated Press report published Aug. 30, the same day the GOP approved its platform, points toward the answer. It was headlined: ?Security tightened on Mexico border until election.?

 The report quoted U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner, saying that the U.S.-Mexico border was in a ?period of increased risk.? ?There have been concerns that terrorists will try to enter the country across our southern border,? he said. ?We have been preparing for the possibility and are taking appropriate actions.?

 In August, the AP said, ?the U.S. embassy in Juarez, Mexico, put out a media alert that suspected terrorist Adnan G. El Shukrijumah might try to cross into Arizona or Texas.?

 Who is Shukrijumah? The Los Angeles Times answered that question in a report published Sept. 3. ?Shukrijumah, who remains a fugitive, has been identified by the FBI as the apparent mastermind of an al Qaeda plot to launch a mass-casualty attack in the United States,? the Times said.

 Of course, it is no surprise that al Qaeda might try to sneak across our southern border. Before 9/11, our political leaders might as well have posted neon signs at our frontiers: Come on in! This nation doesn?t enforce its borders! But are they sending a different message today?

 Well, since 9/11, there has been a curious pattern in the number of illegal aliens apprehended by the Border Patrol as they try to cross our southern border. In fiscal year 2002, the Border Patrol says it arrested 929,809 such people. In fiscal year 2003, the number dropped to 905,065. But this fiscal year it has increased. Through Sept. 6, the preliminary count of illegal aliens apprehended at the Mexican border was 1,074,000.

 Why the spike? One possible explanation is that increased enforcement has led to increased apprehensions. Another, however, is that an increase in the incentive for illegally crossing the border has led to an increase in illegal border crossings.

 On the one hand, it is true that the number of federal law enforcement personnel at the southern border has increased. ?Since 9/11,? Bonner told a House subcommittee in July, ?we have added staffing for both inspectors at the ports of entry and Border Patrol Agents between the ports of entry, and have added more inspection technology.? But the increase in manpower has been incremental, not massive. In fiscal year 2001, the Border Patrol says, it had 9,100 agents on or near the U.S.-Mexico border. This fiscal year, it has 9,900.

 On the other hand, this year started with President Bush proposing a plan to convert illegal aliens in the United States into legal guest workers -- a form of amnesty. Citing a confidential Border Patrol report provided to a Senate subcommittee, Jerry Seper of The Washington Times reported last month that ?(n)early 35 percent of the illegal aliens captured trying to enter the United States in the 19 days after President Bush proposed his still-pending guest-worker program say they were trying to take advantage of what many saw as amnesty.? In January 2004, Seper reported, apprehensions were 11 percent higher than in January 2003.

 If the bulletin the State Department put out last month in Mexico about Adnan Shukrijumah is correct, al Qaeda may have come to the same conclusion as many economically driven illegal immigrants: The U.S. is still not serious about securing its southern border.

 Leaving aside its marginal annual fluctuation up or down, the massive number of people arrested at our southern border in each year since 9/11 means we are still sending an unmistakable message to the world: The backdoor to the U.S. remains unlocked.

 If some of the people who get through that door turn out to be al Qaeda killers, the damage they may do here could change America forever.

 That?s why even if no one else does, President Bush should take very seriously the tough-minded Border Patrol language in his own party?s platform.