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President George W. Bush
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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

W. Ralph Basham
U.S. Customs and Border Protection

August 4, 2006

W. Ralph Basham
This week, President Bush traveled to McAllen, Texas, to see the good work Border Patrol agents and Air Interdiction agents are doing to secure our borders. As the Commissioner over the agency charged with securing our borders, I see border security in terms of national security. We must have control of our borders to protect our homeland.

Recently, the President authorized the deployment of up to 6,000 National Guard members to provide additional support to our efforts to secure the Southwest border. This immediate support is designed to address border security challenges until we can hire an additional 6,000 Border Patrol agents and add infrastructure and technology to better support our frontline personnel. I look forward to taking your questions.

Chris, from Charlotte, NC writes:
With 11 million illegal imigrants living here in the USA. How do we plan to keep them from coming to our country illegally?

W. Ralph Basham
Thank you for your question. Keeping people from crossing the border illegally is a legal issue as well as a matter of national security. We simply must keep people from crossing our borders undetected if we are going to protect our homeland. My agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, belongs to the Department of Homeland Security which has developed a national strategy for gaining control of the borders.

The name of that strategy is the Secure Border Initiative. SBI outlines the need for an increase in the number of Border Patrol agents equipped with the right infrastructure to support them, like roads, lights, fences and barriers, along with technology, like remote cameras on poles near the border and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles overlooking the border watching for border intrusions.

Now, there are other important parts of this strategy like enforcing immigration law in the interior of the country and other important elements that will benefit border security, such as the temporary guest worker program which will funnel immigrant labor traffic in an organized, legal manner through a secure port of entry. Although these factors will affect border security, my agency is the lead on hiring and training more Border Patrol agents, building more infrastructure along the border and developing technology to help us better detect illegal entry.

Let me tell you about some of the progress we are making. This week, for the first time in Border Patrol history, there are more than 12,000 agents on duty. This is a significant milestone toward our effort to employ 18,000 Border Patrol agents by the end of 2008. In September, we will begin a major effort to provide additional technology on the border. In September we will receive an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to patrol the border between Arizona and Mexico. We have recently installed remote cameras along the San Diego border with Mexico and now have better awareness of that part of the border.

Michael, from NYC writes:
Commissioner, how many different Federal Agenices are involved in Border issues? It seems to me that ICE, DHS, Customs, and quite a few other agencies have an INTEREST in same, but of them, which ones actually have input as to how the Borders are protected? Furthermore, doesn't this indicate "too many cooks in the kitchen"?

W. Ralph Basham
Thanks for your question Michael. After September 11, 2001, the federal government had to re-think homeland security. As you know, the Congress and the President created the Department of Homeland Security and charged it with protecting the homeland. In 2003, DHS created U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the one agency that has the responsibility of protecting our borders. Bringing elements of the former Customs agency, the Border Patrol, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and U.S. Immigration together, CBP unified these border security efforts for the first time in our nation’s history. This unification of border security responsibility continues to make our border enforcement efforts more efficient and effective.

kellum, from texas writes:
Sir; I have heard that there is a new North America Passsport being talked about. I would like to knew if this is true and if it is,how will this new Passport effect the blue collar workers. Thank you.

W. Ralph Basham
These are very important questions because they go right to the heart of what is currently in the news, on an issue that will have some affect on a large number of people. As you know, there are currently thousands of forms of identification, from drivers licenses to birth certificates that are used for identification but can easily be counterfeited. In an age where terrorism is a constant threat, this situation poses a grave risk, and a challenge to our country. At Customs and Border Protection, we have a dual responsibility to keep terrorists and terrorist weapons out, while not impeding the cross border flow of goods and people.

No one will deny that the most secure form of travel document is the passport. Beginning in January 2007, passports and a limited number of secure, federally approved documents will be required for air and sea travel (except by ferry and pleasure vessel) to and from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda. This is commonly referred to as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Although this is indeed a change, most of the individuals traveling by air or sea already possess a passport. You may want to look into trusted traveler program membership, which we anticipate will be acceptable under this requirement. The next phase in the process is not due to be implemented until January 1, 2008, a deadline imposed by statute, which will include land border crossings.

Daniel, from Great Barrington, MA writes:
Does your agency have the ability to ensure that people on terrorist watch lists do not enter the U.S.? Thank you.

W. Ralph Basham
You have hit on my agency’s key priority - preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States. I can tell you we have made good progress in identifying those we apprehend at the border. Currently the Border Patrol uses identification technology that links subjects apprehended at the border with the FBI’s biometric criminal database of more than 47 million records.

This identification ability, known as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, rapidly identifies individuals with outstanding criminal warrants by electronically comparing a live-scanned fingerprint against the FBI’s nationwide database of previously captured fingerprints. The system also checks immigration records for information on the subject. As a result, the Border Patrol has identified individuals with more than 265,000 crimes attached to their identity. This includes 930 homicide charges, 12,500 assault charges and almost 2,000 charges of robbery.

U.S. Visit is a similar biometric technology that enables our officers at Ports of Entry to verify a visitor’s identity, the validity of travel documents and check them against law enforcement databases.

Carol, from New York writes:
Why can the border not be closed temporarily until we get a handle on how many illegal people are here and what to do about it?

W. Ralph Basham
Closing the border, even temporarily, to legitimate trade and travel would be an economic disaster for this country and would have a severe impact on the global economy as well. Many U.S. citizens, Canadians and Mexicans cross our borders everyday, with no thought of doing harm. Cross border trade is the life-blood of a healthy economy and must be encouraged as a way to boost the economies of all countries. The benchmark for success is not going to be how many containers or people we keep out of our country but how many containers and people we keep out who would harm us or violate our laws.

Carol, from Lakeland, FL writes:
Dear Mr. Basham, President Bush promised that 6,000 National Guard Troops would be deployed to the Mexico border by August 1st. Why wasn't this done?

W. Ralph Basham
Carol, I can tell you that the National Guard made its commitment to deploy 6,000 Guard members by Aug. 1. Currently, members of the Guard support border security efforts by participating on entry identification teams, operating cameras, monitoring remote video surveillance systems, repairing vehicles and constructing and maintaining tactical infrastructure.

Entry Identification Teams, remote video surveillance operators and other National Guard personnel assigned to Operation Jump Start are making a difference on the border. To date, with the assistance of the Guard, Border Patrol agents have apprehended 3,377 aliens, seized 72 vehicles and rescued 31 aliens in distress.

Guard members have helped border patrol seize more than 18,791 pounds of marijuana and more than 400 pounds of cocaine. As of today, 360 CBP Border Patrol agents have returned to direct border security duties as National Guard troops relieve agents of non-law enforcement responsibilities in support of Operation Jump Start. We are pleased with the support of the Guard and see their deployment helping to strengthen border security in all four border states.

Vincent, from Hollis, Nh writes:
Commissioner Basham, What would it cost to build a wall seperating the States with Mexico?

W. Ralph Basham
Thank you for your question Vincent. Costs for fencing vary depending on who does the work (contractors or military engineers) and the material used to build the fence. Fences are an important part of our border security strategy because fences help Border Patrol agents on the ground have a tactical advantage over the smugglers on the southern side of the border. Certainly in urban settings such as El Paso, Texas and San Diego, California, fences have proven to be quite effective in stemming the flow of illegal entry. Of course, a fence without technology and personnel is not effective. And that’s really the point I’d like to make. We need fencing in places along the border where it makes sense, such as urban settings and vehicle barriers in other place along the border that keep vehicles from crossing the border illegally. We also need the frontline personnel to patrol the area where the fence and barriers are located and technology to help detect an intrusion nearby in order properly secure the border. The goal is to detect intrusions, rapidly respond and resolve the situation by apprehension; and fences are a key component to that strategy.

W. Ralph Basham
Thank you all for your interest and thoughtful questions. I'm honored to serve President Bush, who has made border security and comprehensive immigration reform top priorities for his Administration and the American people. I've enjoyed this opportunity to spend time with you today and I will remain steadfast in my commitment to secure our nation's borders.

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