Homeland Security chief visits New Mexico, Texas 8-07

Artesia, New Mexico (AP) - Students and staff at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center here got a pep talk from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“Protecting our border is right at the core of protecting our homeland,” he told the group during a visit Tuesday. “The pressure against the border is the pressure that you face as our first line of defense.”

Chertoff said that’s why the training offered at the center is so important for students who represent the U.S. Border Patrol, the Transportation Security Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“The training you receive here prepares you for the most dangerous and important work,” he said.

Tuesday wasn’t Chertoff’s first visit to the Artesia center. He toured it in November 2005, and took the opportunity then to outline a multiyear plan to reduce illegal immigration and make the nation’s border more secure. Congress passed a measure funding an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents that year.

Chertoff said Tuesday he continues to support those efforts, noting that by the end of December 2008, Border Patrol agents will number 18,300. That number is expected to surpass 20,000 by the end of 2009.

“There is no substitute for boots on the ground,” he said.

He also pointed to 370 miles of fencing that’s expected to be in place along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2008.

“We’re building fences where fences makes sense, not in isolated rural areas, but near border crossings in urban areas where those wishing to cross the border illegally are headed,” he said.

Chertoff also addressed a border conference Tuesday in El Paso, Texas. He said the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration legislation means more work for customs and immigration officers.

Officials could focus on people seeking to enter the United States “to do harm” if lawmakers passed legislation that included a legal way for foreign workers to come in, he said.

Last Friday, Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced that the Bush administration would move forward on immigration enforcement without Congress, including a plan to administratively sanction employers who hire illegal immigrants.

While in Artesia, Chertoff also recognized the training center for its work with federal air marshals.

“You’re in a small metal tube with many other people,” he told those training to be marshals. “Your margin of error is virtually zero. Specialized training is all the more important.”

He said passenger screening will be improved with the implementation of new programs that include checking names against a terrorist watch list maintained by TSA and passing the responsibility for screening from the airlines to TSA.

He also praised Bureau of Indian Affairs lawmen who train in Artesia for their joint role in border security.