Chertoff Urges Safer Mexican Border

The Associated Press
Friday, February 16, 2007; 5:10 PM

MEXICO CITY -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday that immigration reform would let U.S. law enforcement focus on catching criminals instead of migrants seeking better economic prospects.

But he said Americans were unlikely to back any such reform until added security along the Mexican border convinces them they're safe.

In his first official visit to Mexico, Chertoff told foreign reporters that Mexico was not a "hotbed" of terrorism but "we are always vigilant for people who might be passing into Mexico who are potentially linked to terrorists."

The 6,000 National Guard troops providing logistical support to the Border Patrol since May have dramatically deterred people from crossing the 2,000-mile frontier, he said. Arrests along the border are down, and fewer people have been seen gathering to cross on the Mexican side.

But security alone won't permanently stop illegal border crossers, and Chertoff warned that flows increase as smugglers regroup.

Comprehensive immigration reform, he said, would allow U.S. law enforcement to "focus more on the people that we don't want in the country under any circumstances, namely the criminals and the dangerous folks."

"Every time a Border Patrol officer is transporting a load of future housekeepers and landscapers to someplace to be returned, he's not looking for drug dealers or drug loads," Chertoff said.

Mexico has been pushing for years for a U.S. immigration accord. President Bush has proposed a guest-worker program that would allow Mexicans living abroad to seek temporary work visas, but Congress has refused to back it.

U.S. lawmakers instead have supported building more border walls and beefing up security.

But Chertoff noted that border officials say it may not be necessary to build all 700 miles of border fences proposed in legislation Bush signed into law last year.

Instead, border enforcement authorities would like the flexibility to build walls where needed, while other areas may be better monitored by ground sensors and other technology.

Next week, Chertoff plans to visit the Arizona border to see the first 28 miles of ground sensors being installed as part of a border-wide strategy.

Chertoff said the Guard troops will be phased out when the Border Patrol reaches its goal of hiring 18,319 agents, which the agency is on target to do by the end of 2008.

Chertoff commended Calderon for extraditing to the U.S. four Mexican drug lords in January and leading a federal effort to retake smuggling strongholds from drug traffickers. Previous arrests of key drug leaders have led to bloody turf battles in which drug gangs behead their enemies and openly defy authorities.

Chertoff said he discussed with Mexico's top security officials how to better coordinate efforts to combat border violence and exchange information about traffickers of drugs and people. They also discussed ways to stem the tide of illegal migrants from Central and South America who travel north through Mexico.

Chertoff also said the U.S. and Mexico were working together to protect their energy infrastructure after an Internet threat by a Saudi Arabian terrorist faction affiliated with al-Qaida. The faction urged attacks against oil installations in countries that export petroleum to the U.S. _ namely Mexico, Canada and Venezuela.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said in its monthly online magazine that "cutting oil supplies to the United States, or at least curtailing it, would contribute to the ending of the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan." The group said it was making the statements as part of Osama bin Laden's declared policy.

© 2007 The Associated Press