SAN DIEGO - The U.S. Border Patrol on Tuesday unveiled its first national strategy in eight years, a period in which the number of agents more than doubled and apprehensions of people entering illegally from Mexico dropped to a 40-year low.
The new approach — outlined in a 32-page document that took more than two years to develop — uses buzzwords like "risk-based" and "intelligence-driven" to describe a more nuanced, targeted response to constantly evolving threats.
The Border Patrol previously relied on a strategy that blanketed heavily trafficked corridors for illegal immigrants with agents, pushing migrants to more remote areas where they would presumably be easier to capture and discouraged from trying again.
"The jury, for me at least, is out on whether that's a solid strategy," Chief Mike Fisher told The Associated Press.
The new strategy draws on intelligence to identify repeat crossers and to try to determine why they keep coming, said Fisher, who was expected to address a House subcommittee on the plan Tuesday.
"This whole risk-based approach is trying to figure out, who are these people? What risk do they pose from a national security standpoint? The more we know, the better informed we are about identifying the threat and potential risk," he said in a recent interview.
Conditions on the border have changed dramatically since the last national strategy, putting pressure on the agency to adapt to a new landscape. An unprecedented hiring boom more than doubled the number of agents to 21,000 since 2004, accompanied by heavy spending on fencing, cameras, sensors and other gizmos.
At the same time, migration from Mexico has slowed significantly. Last year, the Border Patrol made 327,577 apprehensions on the Mexican border, down 80 percent from more than 1.6 million in 2000. It was the slowest year since 1971.
The Pew Hispanic Center reported last month that the largest wave of migrants from a single country in U.S. history had stopped increasing and may have reversed.
The new strategy moves to halt a revolving-door policy of sending migrants back to Mexico without any punishment.
The Border Patrol now feels it has enough of a handle to begin imposing more serious consequences on almost everyone it catches from Texas' Rio Grande Valley to San Diego. In January, it expanded its "Consequence Delivery System" to the entire border, dividing border crossers into seven categories, ranging from first-time offenders to people with criminal records.
Punishments vary by region but there is a common thread: Simply turning people around after taking their fingerprints is the choice of last resort. Some, including children and the medically ill, will still get a free pass by being turned around at the nearest border crossing, but they will be few and far between.
Departure from Bush strategy
The new strategy makes no mention of expanding fences and other physical barriers, a departure from the administration of President George W. Bush. Fisher said he would rule out more fences but, "It's not going to be part of our mantra."
The strategy makes only brief mention of technology in the wake of a failed $1 billion program that was supposed to put a network of cameras, ground sensors and radars along the entire border. Fisher said the agency is moving more toward mobile surveillance like unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters.
"We're still trying to understand what the capabilities are with all the technologies and the platforms," Fisher said. "I'm just trying to figure out what is the best suite on all this stuff."
The strategy makes it a top priority to ferret out corrupt agents, which has emerged as a growing threat as the agency has expanded.
It is the Border Patrol's third national strategy since 1994, when the agency poured resources into the San Diego and El Paso, Texas, areas. That effort pushed migrants to remote mountains and deserts and made Arizona the nation's busiest crossing for illegal crossings.
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