El Paso border chief urges immigration reform …El Paso border patrol chief says reform needed to stem flow of illegal immigrants, criminals

EL PASO, Texas — The key to curbing illegal immigration rests in the hands of Congress, the chief of the U.S. Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector said.

Chief Patrol Agent Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., said without comprehensive immigration reform border agents continue to split their attention between “economic migrants,” criminals, and potentially terrorists.

“Most of these people are economic migrants but we have to deal with them between the ports of entry because we have not, in terms of a legislative fix, determined what we do with these people,” Manjarrez said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that the country has a need for economic migrants. To what degree, I don’t know. That’s for the country to decide and for the politicians to decide.”

In the El Paso Sector, an area that encompasses 268 miles of border stretching west from Hudspeth County in far West Texas to the Arizona state line, agents arrested about 75,000 border crossers in fiscal year 2007. Manjarrez estimates that at least 87 percent of those were just looking for work.

Immigration reform stalled in 2006 amid a flurry proposed bills that included everything from criminal sanctions for illegal immigrants to guest worker programs to paths to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already living in the United States.

Approved were efforts to build a fence at the Mexican border and hire thousands of new agents to patrol vast stretches of open desert separating the U.S. from Mexico and the thick woods and lakes that divide the U.S. and Canada.

And with the Border Patrol’s new focus on terrorists and weapons of mass destruction — the agency changed its official focus with the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — Manjarrez said agents need help.

“When you look at the series of events that have happened over the last five, six years … our mission changed,” Manjarrez said. “Our primary mission changed from our traditional focus. Our primary mission now is terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. That’s what we should be focused on. We can’t focus on that as much as we would like because of all the other issues that we deal with.”

The chief said agents “have encountered situations which lead us to believe there is a terrorism nexus.” He declined to provide specific details.

Manjarrez, a veteran agent who has served in various sectors including Tucson, Ariz. and the Washington D.C. headquarters, said based on intelligence received “by the DHS family” and hunches based on experience, he believes the threat of a terrorist or weapon of mass destruction being smuggled across the border exists.

And by reducing “the clutter” of immigration issues his agents respond to every day, agents could focus their attention more closely on looking for would-be terrorists, criminals, and weapons.

“If there is anything that can reduce that flow, and those stresses” it would help, Manjarrez said.