WASHINGTON- The nation's homeland security chief said Tuesday he had ordered a review of border security strategy before two governors declared an immigration emergency on the U.S.-Mexico line.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters his department had recently begun mapping out its surveillance equipment, personnel and other assets to combat the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who cross into the United States from Mexico each year - and the criminal "coyote" groups that smuggle some of them in.
"We have established working groups with ardent goals and short deadlines to make recommendations for better enforcement strategies all across the operations spectrum," Chertoff wrote in a Monday letter to Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona.
He also called immigration enforcement an issue of utmost importance.
Citing security shortcomings by the federal government, Napolitano and Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico last week declared an emergency on their states' borders with Mexico. Doing so freed up more than $3 million combined in emergency funds for law enforcement overtime, for repairs of border and cattle fences and for costs related to illegal immigrants' deaths.
Homeland Security recommendations to prosecute immigrants increased by 65 percent - from 23,926 cases to 39,491 cases - between 2003 and 2004, according to a Syracuse University study to be released Wednesday. Most of the increase came in the Southern District of Texas, which includes the Houston area, where prosecutions spiked by 14,030 cases.
Immigration-related cases made up for nearly 33 percent of all federal prosecutions last year _ more than any other crime, according to the Syracuse study, which was based on Justice Department data.
The Homeland Security review, which should be completed within the next several weeks, will examine how best to tighten U.S. borders while catching, detaining and deporting immigrants already in the country, aides said.
Its results will be considered as part of a broad border security strategy that Chertoff has said will include a temporary worker program to help ease the flow of illegal migrants into the country. Security measures along the 5,000-mile border between the U.S. and Canada also will be examined, aides said.
More than half of the 1.1 million illegal immigrants apprehended in the United States last year entered at the Arizona border. Some are smuggled in by criminal human traffickers, or coyotes, who charge thousands of dollars per person. Others risk their lives and health by crossing through the desert's insufferable heat.