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Chertoff: Twice as many agents on border

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Wednesday declared success on President Bush’s goal of doubling U.S. Border Patrol agents to 18,000 during his time in office, but said they will fall 10 percent short of putting barriers along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The secretary told reporters the progress they’ve made on enforcement has helped actually reduce the flow of illegal immigrants for the first time since right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“For the first time, we’ve reversed momentum and are moving in the right direction,” he told reporters.

When Mr. Bush took office in 2001 the Border Patrol had about 9,000 agents. Mr. Chertoff said as of this week they are at 18,049.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress fought to increase the size of the Border Patrol, among boosts to other immigration law enforcement agencies. The Bush administration initially balked, but after its own immigration plans faltered the president embraced the goal of increasing the Border Patrol.

He even deployed the National Guard to the border as a stop-gap measure while the Border Patrol hired and trained agents.

Mr. Bush had tried to combine increased enforcement with a plan to legalize illegal immigrants, but that effort failed twice in Congress. The administration and members of Congress said voters were unwilling to accept legalization until they were assured enforcement would be improved.

The secretary said the Bush administration has since made great strides in security, though he said there still needs to be a program for future temporary workers enacted at some point. Still, he said it’s unclear whether security has been improved enough for President-elect Barack Obama to take another stab at a broad immigration bill early in his term.