Bush has launched a drive to halt illegal immigration
across America's porous southern border, amid growing
fears that terrorists may be using Mexico as a base camp
before heading to Arizona, Texas and California.
A string of alarming incidents has convinced Bush administration
officials that lax immigration rules, designed to cope
with the huge numbers of illegal entrants from Mexico,
have become a significant loophole in the war on terror.
Over the past month, border agents from
Arizona and Texas have anonymously reported recent encounters
with dozens of Arab men, who have made their way across
the 2,000-mile Mexican border.
Patrol agents told one Arizona newspaper
that 77 males "of Middle Eastern descent" were
apprehended in June in two separate incidents. All were
trekking through the Chiricahua mountains and are believed
to have been part of a larger group of illegal immigrants.
Many were released pending immigration hearings. According
to Solomon Ortiz, the Congressman for Corpus Christi in
Texas, similar incidents are "happening all over
the place. It's very, very scary".
The two groups of Arab males were discovered
by patrol guards from Willcox, Arizona. "These guys
didn't speak Spanish," said one field agent, "and
they were speaking to each other in Arabic. It's ridiculous
that we don't take this more seriously. We're told not
to say a thing to the media." A colleague told the
paper: "All the men had brand-new clothing and the
exact same cut of moustache." Local ranchers have
also reported a rise in the sightings of large groups
of young males.
month, border patrol agents at McAllen airport, Texas,
arrested a woman believed to be Pakistani, who was carrying
a false South African passport. The woman, Farida Ahmed,
is still being questioned by the FBI. She was travelling
to New York, and admitted to having illegally crossed
the Mexican border. She was still carrying a pair of wet
jeans in her travel bag.
More than 1.2 million people attempt to
cross US borders illegally each year. The vast majority
are Mexicans who are immediately repatriated. But under
existing laws, which take account limited detention facilities,
many non-Mexican illegal immigrants are released prior
to a hearing with an immigration judge, which most fail
to attend. Almost 22,000 non-Mexican immigrants have been
released pending a hearing since last October. Once released,
they are free to travel on their own throughout the United
States. According to one Texas immigration official, those
who slip through the net come "from all over the
you want to enter the US illegally," said the official,
"the way to do it is to get to Mexico first."
The possibility of a southern border loophole for potential
terrorists was recognised as early as last year. In testimony
before Congress, Steve McCraw, the assistant director
of the FBI's Office of Intelligence, stated that "the
ability of foreign nationals to use [the hearings procedure]
to create a well-documented but fictitious identity in
the United States, provides an opportunity for terrorists
to move freely within the US without triggering name-based
watch lists. It also enables them to board planes without
revealing their true identity".
According to new laws, approved by President
Bush and announced last week by the Homeland Security
Department, illegal immigrants who are not Mexican will
be repatriated within days, without a hearing. The effort
comes in response to a prolonged campaign by Texas congressmen,
who have argued that the president's home state was in
danger of becoming a gateway to America for terrorists.
In a letter to President Bush last week,
Mr Ortiz wrote: "Law enforcement agencies across
the south-west border are alarmed that the US is releasing
thousands of OTMs [Other than Mexicans]. Those released
include individuals from nations the US defines as state
sponsors of potential terrorism, or from those nations
that have produced large numbers of al-Qaeda militants."
Mr Ortiz also claims that immigration
officials have privately warned him that a number of suspicious
foreigners have been detained on the Mexican border and
then released, including some who claimed to have travelled
from South and Central America but were unable to speak
The rules are to be tried out first in
Tucson, Arizona, and Laredo, Texas. Any non-Mexican illegal
immigrant found within 100 miles of the border, within
14 days of their arrival, will be immediately expelled.
D'Wayne Jernigan, a sheriff in Del Rio, Texas, believes
that the rule change should be immediately implemented
across the entire Mexican border. Last month, immigration
authorities told Sheriff Jernigan to release 17 Brazilians
from his jail, before the FBI had located an interpreter
in order to interview them.
"My concern is, are we serious about
terrorism?" said Sheriff Jernigan. "Or about
homeland security? Because we're turning loose non-Mexicans
by the thousands. Entering this country illegally is a
crime, and we're turning our heads and ignoring it."
related story from KVOA-TV in Tucson, Arizona