Bush is requesting 210 more agents, far less than the 2,000 additional agents authorized by Congress last year. Democrats and Republicans call the proposal inadequate to secure the porous border against illegal immigrants, smugglers and terrorists.
The criticism escalated after the Homeland Security Department's deputy secretary said recent information gathered from investigations and detentions "strongly suggests that al Qaida has considered using the Southwest border to infiltrate the United States," possibly through the use of human smuggling networks.
"Several al Qaida leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico," James Loy said in prepared testimony Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The al Qaida leaders, he said, also believe that "illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry for operational security reasons."
While department officials have "no conclusive evidence" that al Qaida operatives have crossed the border, Loy told lawmakers that attacking the U.S. homeland "remains at the top of al Qaida's operational priority list."
"The strategic intent of al Qaida's remaining leaders and planners to attempt another dramatic homeland attack is clear," he said. "What is less clear are al Qaida's current operational capabilities to execute such an attack."
Border security has become a high priority in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and it is emerging as a central theme in what promises to be a protracted congressional effort to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
The border provisions in Bush's 2006 budget proposal, presented to Congress on Feb. 7, came less than two months after the president signed an intelligence bill that authorized the government to add 10,000 agents over five years, starting with an increase of 2,000 in 2006. The additional agents would almost double the Border Patrol's force of 11,000 agents, most of whom are deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The president signs the bill and turns around and says I was just kidding," said agent T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents Border Patrol agents. Bush's decision to increase the force by 210 instead of 2,000, Bonner said, constituted another blow to already sagging morale among the nation's 10,800 agents.
The president's overall spending request for 2006 cuts scores of programs in an attempt to shrink the federal deficit and finance military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But many lawmakers said they expected full funding of the Border Patrol increase under a tacit understanding between Congress and the White House when they were negotiating the terms of the National Intelligence Reform Act.
"When Congress passed the intelligence reform bill in December, we made clear the need for increased patrols along our borders," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said in a statement. "We need to do more than the president's budget proposes."
During a recent CNN interview, Hutchison's Texas colleague, Republican Sen. John Cornyn, also called for a "larger number" of agents and said the federal government has to "step up" its border-security efforts.
"Our borders are too porous," said Cornyn, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on immigration.
The criticism from the Texas Republicans, who normally support most of the president's initiatives, reflected the intense reaction to Bush's proposal, particularly in the Southwest. Newspaper editor Chris Simcox of Tombstone, Ariz., is organizing a 30-day demonstration along his state's border with Mexico, beginning April 1, to protest the president's Border Patrol budget.
The White House referred questions about the issue to the Homeland Security Department.
Mario Villarreal, spokesman for the department's U.S. Customs and Border Protection branch, said the presidential request, in addition to the 210 agents, also includes money for equipment and technology such as helicopters and unmanned surveillance. The combined package, he said, "will allow us to gain greater operational control to guard our nation's borders."
Bonner, a veteran Border Patrol agent based in San Diego, contends that an additional 2,000 agents are essential to help the current force deal with the steady flow of immigrants across the border. "They're not getting the support out of Washington to do their job," he said. "Our agents estimate that for every person we catch, several get by us."
In some areas, Bonner said, agents apprehend as few as 10 percent of the estimated number of people who come across. "When you apply pressure in one area, they simply adjust and move," he said.
Bonner said smuggling rings have proliferated and become more sophisticated over the past decade, charging as much as $3,000 a person. Deputy Secretary Loy, in his testimony last week, expressed concern that "entrenched human smuggling networks can be exploited by terrorist organizations."
In addition to the legions of Mexicans who cross the border looking for work, illegal immigrants have increasingly come from other countries, including Central America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Unlike illegal immigrants from Mexico, who are often transported back to their home country shortly after apprehension, so-called OTMs - "Other Than Mexicans" - pose a growing problem for patrol agents and immigration authorities because they cannot be easily returned to their countries.
OTMs deemed to be a criminal threat or national security risk are placed in detention centers. The others are released with orders to appear before an immigration judge at a later date because there are too many to be placed in detention.
Many fan out in U.S. society and never show up at their hearing, immigration authorities say. The no-show rate at the Harlingen immigration court last year was 88 percent, according to the "McAllen Monitor."
Former border patrolman John Brinning of Harlingen, who retired in 2003 after a 30-year career, said in a telephone interview that many OTMs have "gotten so bold lately" that they'll flag down a Border Patrol unit and asked to be taken in and processed, so they can be released. Others have been known to take a taxicab to the Border Patrol station.
Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, said illegal immigrants from more than 60 countries have passed through his border district. "Before, it was Mexicans coming across the border, and the Border Patrol knew they were more or less looking for better jobs," Ortiz said. "Now they tell you they don't know who is coming across the border."
Ortiz said he plans to work with Republicans and Democrats to try restore full-funding for the Border Patrol, calling Bush's proposal "1,800 (agents) short."
"It is very inadequate when we see the drug warlords fighting over territory, when we see kidnappings on the border, when we see thousands of OTMs coming across," said the South Texas lawmaker.
Ortiz said agents have told him that members of a Central American gang, Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, have crossed into the United States through his district. In his written testimony, Loy cited MS-13 as an emerging threat.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, a San Antonio Republican who served as co-chairman of the GOP National Convention last year, also expressed concern about the president's proposal. "There were many of us who feel very strongly that number needs to be higher," he said. Bonilla's congressional district is the largest in Texas and includes 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border.
BY THE NUMBERS
1,989: miles along the U.S.-Mexico border
11,000: current number of U.S. Border Patrol agents
10,000: number of agents Congress has voted to add over the next five years in the wake of 9-11
2,000: number of Border Patrol agents Congress voted to add next year
210: number of agents President Bush's budget proposes adding next year
SOURCE: U.S. Homeland Security Department