U.S. border policy: Speak with a loud voice, act softly

The neglect of the northern border is an established policy on the part of President Clinton. Even so, the administration’s latest action comes as something of a shock.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has – again – transferred agents and equipment from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. This time, the INS is sending all of its remaining aircraft in the Pacific Northwest, along with their pilots, to the south.

The administration likes to say that it is defending the Northwest. Last fall, the INS promised to halt its transfers of agents from northern states to the Mexican border. President Clinton proclaims his own concern. While referring to the arrest of a terrorist suspect in Port Angeles just before the New Year, the president two months ago announced the installation of high-resolution cameras along the Canadian border. At the announcement, Clinton described the explosives material seized in Port Angeles as the same material used by Osama bin Laden in other terrorist attacks.

Now, however, the INS is turning the proclaimed presidential concern on its head. The agency is using the high-tech equipment as part of its justification for breaking its own promise to stop transferring agents. According to an agency spokesman, the border is being equipped with more video cameras, more lighting and sensors to compensate for the temporary loss of planes and personnel. Hmm, it could almost make one wonder if President Clinton would approve.

Sadly, however, the erosion of border resources here has gone on for so long that it has become, practically speaking, the president’s own policy. Whether Clinton is actively aware of it or not, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner has made transfers from the north a hallmark of his administration’s border policy.

Rep. Jack Metcalf, whose district includes the state’s main border crossings, has led the congressional protests. A Metcalf-initiated letter objecting to the plane removals drew the signatures of the state’s entire congressional delegation.

Upholding immigration and drug laws along the southern border is a serious job. A series of recent exposure deaths among would-be immigrants certainly demands attention, as the INS has noted in explaining its plane transfers.

The answer, however, cannot continually be found in moving resources from the northern border. As Metcalf aide Lew Moore notes, conditions have changed for the worse here. The administration cannot continue acting as if the northern border lies in a "Leave It to Beaver" time warp. The staffing shortages here have been well-documented, both by Congress, the agents’ union and an internal administration study.

Only good work by border agents last December prevented a disastrous terrorist attack. The agents need help and real leadership from the administration, not these endless, dangerous games.

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