Michael R. Bromwich Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice
House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims
Northern Border Enforcement Issues
April 14, 1999
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Mr. Chairman, Congresswoman Jackson Lee, and Members of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims:
I appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee to discuss the work of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with respect to immigration law enforcement issues at the border between the United States and Canada. As this subcommittee is well aware, the OIG has done extensive work investigating, auditing and inspecting programs and personnel along this country’s southern border with Mexico. Up to this point at least, northern border issues have received far less of our attention and, I suspect, far less attention from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and other federal agencies charged with securing our nation’s borders. While the OIG will continue to play an active role in Southwest border states, I am hopeful that our budget situation will improve in FY 2000 to enable us to open a small field office in Detroit, MI, to handle an increasing number of northern border issues.
This morning I plan to do two things during my remarks: first, describe an initiative under way in our Inspections Division to review INS’s strategy and deployment of resources for securing the northern border between the United States and Canada. Second, I will discuss a Special Investigation we completed last year that involved a Palestinian who entered this country illegally across the northern border and was convicted for plotting to bomb the New York City subway.
- OIG Inspection of Border Patrol Efforts Along the Northern Border
The U.S.-Canadian border, which extends for approximately 4,000 miles (excluding Alaska), is one of the longest land borders in the world. Approximately 300 Border Patrol Agents assigned to one of eight Sectors share responsibility for controlling this vast border. Our inspection – which began in February of this year – will review law enforcement threats along the northern border and the Border Patrol’s use of its resources, intelligence information, and law-enforcement relationships to address these threats.
Thus far, the inspection team has reviewed considerable background information, including the Border Patrol’s Strategic Plan, annual intelligence assessments, workload data, and press reports on northern border issues. The team also has interviewed senior Border Patrol officials at INS headquarters in Washington, D.C., and senior managers at Border Patrol Sectors in Spokane, Washington; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Havre, Montana; and Houlton, Maine. We are just beginning the fieldwork phase of this inspection and plan to visit Border Patrol Sectors in Swanton, Vermont; Buffalo, New York; Detroit, Michigan; and Blaine, Washington. We expect to complete our site visits and interviews by mid-June.
While our Inspections team is just beginning its field work, I offer several preliminary observations:
- The Border Patrol’s national strategy implemented in 1994 focuses on deterrence – i.e., preventing illegal aliens from penetrating the border. This approach differs from the Border Patrol’s previous operational strategy that mixed deterrence with traffic checks, farm and ranch checks, and jail checks. The current strategy has curtailed these Border Patrol interior enforcement activities significantly in favor of a greater emphasis on a "show of force" to prevent illegal immigration. Perhaps the best-known examples of this strategy are the "Gatekeeper" operation in the San Diego Sector and "Operation Hold-the-Line" in El Paso, Texas.
- The Border Patrol’s national strategy includes four phases for controlling the entire U.S. border. The first three phases direct the vast majority of Border Patrol resources to the Southwest border until an appropriate level of deterrence is achieved. When this is accomplished, the Border Patrol will move to the fourth phase that calls for achieving deterrence at all remaining border areas, including the northern border. The Border Patrol is currently in the second phase of this strategy and it may be several years before Phase IV begins and the northern border is provided significant additional resources.
- The nature of the law enforcement threats on or near the northern border includes alien smuggling, drug smuggling, illegal alien entry, and terrorism. The intensity and type of specific threats vary from sector to sector. A few examples:
- The border in western Washington is experiencing a marked increase in the smuggling of "BC Bud" – an especially potent strain of marijuana – that sells for as much as cocaine in Southern California.
- The Swanton, Vermont, Sector has experienced a unique alien smuggling operation in which Native Americans have used tribal lands that straddle the border to smuggle illegal aliens from Asia into the United States.
- INS and other intelligence reports indicate that terrorist groups locate in Canada in part because of Canada’s liberal visa and asylum laws and the country’s proximity to the United States.
I look forward to sharing the results of our Inspection with the Subcommittee when it is completed.
- Special Investigation: Bombs in Brooklyn
- Investigative Findings
A Special Investigation by my office released in March 1998 – "Bombs in Brooklyn: How the Two Illegal Aliens Arrested for Plotting to Bomb the New York Subway Entered and Remained in the United States" – highlighted the threat that illegal aliens who enter the country through the northern border may be involved in terrorist activities. In this investigation, the OIG examined how two aliens, Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer (Mezer) and Lafi Khalil (Khalil), entered and remained in the United States before they were arrested in July1997 for allegedly planning to bomb the New York City subway system. Mezer was subsequently convicted of the bomb plot and received a life sentence. As the Subcommittee may remember from my testimony several weeks ago, Khalil illegally remained in the United States after his visa expired – a visa overstay. He was acquitted of charges stemming from the bombing plot but convicted of immigration charges and sentenced to three years in prison.
As our report discussed, Mezer was first apprehended attempting to enter the United States on June 23, 1996, when the National Park Service stopped him in a remote area in North Cascades National Park in Washington state. After Mezer was turned over to the Border Patrol, he was returned voluntarily to Canada. During our investigation, INS officials told us that because of the unavailability of detention space, aliens who are apprehended attempting to enter the United States illegally along this stretch of border are typically returned to Canada voluntarily, as Mezer was, unless there are unusual circumstances, such as evidence that the alien is an aggravated felon.
The vast majority of illegal aliens apprehended entering the United States from Canada – for example, 723 of 794 in the Blaine Sector in FY 1996 – are voluntarily returned to Canada. We found that record checks are rarely done on these illegal aliens to see if they may be suspected terrorists. In addition, aliens are rarely prosecuted for the criminal offense of entry without inspection, even after repeated apprehensions.
Six days later, the Border Patrol detained Mezer again trying to enter the United States illegally through a park next to a busy port of entry 65 miles west of where he had been apprehended the previous week. Once again, the Border Patrol voluntarily returned Mezer to Canada.
Six months later, Mezer was apprehended a third time by a Border Patrol agent as Mezer was boarding a bus in Bellingham, Washington, 25 miles south of the Canadian border. This time, Canadian immigration officials told the Border Patrol that Canada probably would not accept Mezer back. The Border Patrol agent commenced formal deportation proceedings against Mezer, but, as is common in such cases, Mezer was released on bond. He subsequently filed an asylum application to remain in the United States, claiming that he was persecuted in Israel because the authorities incorrectly believed he was a member of the terrorist group Hamas. Mezer was later arrested in Brooklyn for the plot to bomb the subway.
- Systemic Weaknesses
Contrary to the perception that arose at the time of Mezer's arrest, he was not a known terrorist who U.S. immigration authorities inappropriately allowed to travel around the United States while awaiting deportation. Although we did not find improper actions by any individual officials, our review did reveal important and systemic problems that are not unique to Mezer's case.
First, his easy entry into Canada and his ability to remain in Canada despite criminal convictions for use of a stolen credit card and misdemeanor assault – coupled with his repeated attempts to enter the United States illegally – highlight the difficulty in controlling illegal immigration into the United States.
Second, Mezer's case shows the inadequacy of INS resources for preventing illegal immigration along the northwest border. With an average of four Border Patrol agents assigned to Western Washington stations that cover 102 miles of the border – and no coverage of the border from midnight until the morning – it is surprising that Mezer was apprehended once, much less three times.
Third, the virtual impunity from prosecution that aliens face when they are caught entering the United States illegally is also made apparent by Mezer's case. Border Patrol statistics show that most illegal aliens who are apprehended entering the United States from Canada are voluntarily returned without any criminal or immigration consequences. Despite twice being caught attempting to enter the United States illegally within one week, Mezer was simply returned voluntarily to Canada each time.
Fourth, Mezer's case demonstrates significant differences of understanding as to which federal agencies check for information regarding whether an asylum applicant is a terrorist. We found that the immigration court and INS asylum officers believed that the State Department checks its databases for information about individual terrorists. State Department officials said that they thought that INS and its asylum officers had access to such information and conducted these checks. In fact, absent unusual circumstances, the State Department does not check for terrorist information. While we were told that Border Patrol stations have access to the State Department's "Tipoff" system that contains information about suspected terrorists, it is not clear whether these offices check this information routinely when an alien is detained.
Even more significantly, we were told that no terrorism checks are performed either by INS or by the Department of State on the vast majority of asylum applications that are submitted by asylum officers – more than 90 percent of the 150,000 asylum application filed annually. While we have no indication that any information was available to indicate that Mezer was a terrorist, we believe that Mezer's case shows that the INS and the State Department need to coordinate more closely on appropriate procedures for accessing and sharing any information suggesting that a detained alien or an asylum applicant may be a terrorist.
Since issuance of our report last March, we sent two letters to the INS to check on the status of their corrective actions – the first in October 1998, the second in January of this year. INS has not responded to either letter.
It is clear to me from this case example, and from the work that our Inspection team has conducted to date, that northern border enforcement issues are vitally important to the security of the United States. I encourage this subcommittee’s continued oversight of this issue, and I look forward to sharing the results of our review of INS’s strategy and deployment of resources for securing the northern border between the United States and Canada.
I would be pleased to answer any questions.