WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will deploy more than 500 additional Border Patrol agents to Arizona to deter illegal immigrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said Tuesday, even as a self-appointed civilian group was preparing to launch its own patrols.
An announcement scheduled for today will bring top Homeland Security officials from Washington to a cavernous hangar at an Air Force base near Tucson, home to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft that patrol the border.
The display of bolstered federal patrols and technology will come two days before an ad hoc civilian patrol commences its border protection campaign known as the Minuteman Project. Roving patrols of civilians, including some individuals who might be armed, will attempt to spot illegal border-crossers and call in federal officers to make arrests. Organizers expect more than 500 volunteers to participate.
"President Bush called the Minuteman Project a bunch of vigilantes -- but if it's the case that this [federal crackdown] did start because of the Minuteman Project, then the project is a success," said Bill Bennett, a spokesman for the group in Tombstone, Ariz. "I find it very interesting that this is all coinciding."
Federal officials said the timing of their announcement had nothing to do with the Minuteman Project, although they acknowledged a strained relationship with the group. "We're the front line," said one Homeland Security official.
With the peak border-crossing season approaching, federal officials said their announcement reflected a new phase of the Arizona Border Control Initiative begun last year.
When the deployment is complete, about 3,000 Border Patrol agents will be assigned to the 370-mile Arizona frontier, mostly desert terrain. About 150 new agents will be sent immediately.
Unmanned aerial drones of the sort used by the military in Afghanistan also are expected to return to the skies above Arizona in coming months, an official said. The drones were tested there last year.
In addition to the border agents, investigators from Immigration and Customs Enforcement will redouble efforts to disrupt smuggling networks by identifying key leaders and going after their financial assets.
Critics say the campaign is just the latest edition of an annual federal crackdown that few believe can stop the flow.
"The whole thing is a shell game," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents agents. "They are trying to convince the American public that they are doing something, when they're doing very little.
"The timing is suspicious," Bonner added. "They don't want to be embarrassed by the Minutemen."
Arizona officials said they welcomed the attention, but would withhold judgment until they saw some results.
"This is part of what needs to happen at the border," said Jeanine L'Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.
"The governor is anxious to see whether this is more than a response to immediate things.... The Minutemen is the most obvious thing that comes to mind."
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said: "Increased border enforcement is one piece of the puzzle, so this is welcome news. However, we cannot solve this problem with border enforcement alone. We need a comprehensive temporary-worker program, and Congress needs to begin working on a proposal."
Calls by Bush for such a program have been ignored in Congress by a powerful wing of his own party that opposes easing of immigration restrictions and favors stricter enforcement.
The influx of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border has remained fairly steady. For the 2004 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the Border Patrol reported 1.1 million apprehensions. That compares with 1.2 million apprehensions during the 2001 fiscal year, which ended less than three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and marked the beginning of a greater emphasis on security.
Deaths of migrants attempting to cross into Arizona under unsparing conditions have not markedly declined, despite search and rescue efforts by U.S. and Mexican authorities. Last year, more than 300 died.