Alan C. Nelson, the embattled Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner, Wednesday vigorously defended his agency’s record and its plan to dig a border ditch near San Diego, calling opposition to the ditch “ludicrous.”
Nelson said the 4-mile-long ditch, designed to impede the smuggling of aliens and contraband in the area, is little different from a smaller one already in place in Nogales, Ariz., that has caused no controversy.
Nelson, testifying before a House subcommittee that is reviewing his agency’s proposed $1-billion budget, also hailed the INS’ performance in implementing the landmark immigration reform law and in making drug seizures that he said are “essential” to the nation’s war on drugs.
Sharp criticism of the agency’s management practices in a recent Justice Department audit was “blown out of proportion,” Nelson said. He vowed to submit a detailed response to it in the next several days.
Nelson turned aside concerns from members of the House Appropriations Committee’s judiciary subcommittee that budget constraints would adversely affect the agency’s anti-drug effort and other programs.
The Bush Administration’s fiscal 1990 budget requests a reduction of 1,501 INS positions, including 552 in the Border Patrol. “We’re all under tough times” because of the federal budget deficit, Nelson said, but noted that INS officials realize they must be “team players” in the deficit fight.
Nelson’s testimony came only days after disclosure of the Justice Department audit, which charged that INS management was riddled with inefficiency, and after confirmation by Administration sources that Nelson will not be reappointed to the top INS post he has held since 1982.
Mounting controversy about the ditch has also increased the pressure on it.
“I hope the United States has enough determination” to go ahead and dig the ditch this summer as planned, Nelson said. He said the ditch “makes sense for drainage” and that “we certainly have the right to stop vehicles from crossing our borders illegally.”
Since the plan was publicized in January, immigrant rights groups have charged that the ditch would become an onerous symbol, like the Berlin Wall, and the Mexican government has lodged a protest.
Nelson termed Mexico’s protest “very mild.” He dismissed objections in general, saying a few groups and a few politicians got “fired up,” adding that the ditch “should never have been a big issue.”
Nelson said the $2-million project had been discussed by U.S. and Mexican officials for more than a year, because Mexico was having drainage problems.
Citing drive-through smuggling traffic in the area, estimated by the INS at 300 to 400 vehicles a month, Nelson said, “Any country ought to be able to stop that; it’s ridiculous if you can’t.”
In impassioned testimony, Nelson said the project was “perking along in good shape” until “somebody leaked the thing” to a newspaper in January. Then, he said, it was viewed as “some big thing, and there it went from there. It’s ludicrous.”
Both Nelson and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a subcommittee member, questioned why objections have been raised to the ditch planned for California, while the one in Nogales has been accepted.
Critics of the California proposal said the Nogales ditch, 3 1/2 feet deep, 8 feet wide and 500 yards long, is far shorter than the planned four-mile-long ditch near San Diego. The new ditch would be 14 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Also, the Nogales ditch was dug in an existing dip in the terrain, according to local INS officials, who said it was completed in January.
The Arizona ditch “is effective,” said Jacqui Parker, a senior Border Patrol agent in Tucson. She said that in its first week of operation it netted a station wagon full of marijuana.