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Border Patrol Official Denies Shift in Policy

The agent who wrote the widely criticized memo on arrests insists it was intended to remind agents of their limited enforcement role.

August 15, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

A ranking U.S. Border Patrol official said he was stunned that agents were critical of a memo he wrote ordering them not to arrest or question illegal immigrants except along the border and at highway checkpoints in Orange and Riverside counties.

Chief Patrol Agent William T. Veal said Thursday that his Aug. 8 memo was meant only as a reminder of a policy that has been in effect for four years.

Further, he denied the memo was a response to criticism of the agency's arrest of a Mexican family outside the Mexican Consulate in San Diego or protests from recent arrests in San Juan Capistrano, where critics accused the Border Patrol of making neighborhood sweeps.

"I can tell you unequivocally that there is no correlation here," said Veal.

His directive stirred a firestorm of criticism. Talk show hosts called for his resignation, editorials condemned the memo and agents charged that the chief was, in effect, ordering them to stop doing their jobs.

But on Thursday, Veal said his intent was to remind agents of a policy that originated in Washington and was enacted in March 1999 due to court rulings limiting the Border Patrol's authority to question people about their legal status.

He said the reminder was necessitated by recent incidents that made it obvious to him that agents did not understand the policy.

Veal declined to identify the incidents but said they did not include the Aug. 1 arrests of five members of a Mexican family in downtown San Diego or the June arrests in San Juan Capistrano of about a dozen people picked up in an area where immigrant families live.

Both actions were highly publicized and led to protests from residents and Mexican consular officials.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) said he was troubled by a section in Veal's memo that warned agents to get clearance "at a higher level" if they have doubts about whether to take an enforcement action.

Cox, chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said he would ask Border Patrol officials for clarification.

Veal said the directive was also intended to inform agents that the Border Patrol's "priority mission" changed March 1 when the agency became part of the Department of Homeland Security.

"Our priority mission is stopping the entry of terrorists while still maintaining our core mission of stopping illegal aliens and contraband," said Veal, who oversees agents in San Diego County and portions of Orange and Riverside counties.

Agents, however, said they found that message odd, because they had not been trained to identify terrorists.

In the memo, Veal said agents are prohibited from taking enforcement action or questioning suspects in cities, at places of employment, in residential areas and even while traveling between assignments, including while driving to assist local police. Those duties are now the responsibility of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.

Joseph N. Dassaro, president of the local union that represents Border Patrol agents, agreed Thursday that the memo was based on existing policy. But he said the policy was a leftover from the "ineffective Immigration and Naturalization Service," the former parent agency of the Border Patrol.

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