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Senate OKs 600 New Agents for Border Patrol

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Senate gave final approval Thursday to legislation that will provide 600 new Border Patrol agents and an additional $171 million for federal immigration services.

Language inserted into the Justice Department appropriations bill for fiscal year 1994 assures that $45 million will be spent to hire, train and deploy most of the new federal agents along the nation’s Southwest border.

It is not clear how many of the 600 agents will go to California, but the bulk of staff increases have traditionally gone to the San Diego sector, the Border Patrol’s busiest area. During the recently completed fiscal year, San Diego agents made 531,689 arrests, about half of all border arrests nationwide.

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“It’s a beginning,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has taken a high-profile stance on immigration issues during her first year in Congress. “It is not nearly enough because the border is the most porous thing since spongecake.”

Feinstein said she would like to see Border Patrol authorities in San Diego use their beefed-up forces to stage an effort similar to the recent “Operation Blockade” experiment in El Paso, in which 450 agents working overtime saturated a 20-mile stretch of border. Temporarily at least, the blockade has virtually stopped illegal crossing in that area and arrests dropped substantially, from about 1,000 a day to as few as 100, Feinstein said.

Border Patrol officials have been reluctant to conduct an El Paso-style blockade in San Diego. The rough terrain of the border and the desperation of migrants seeking to reach California job centers makes the environment more volatile than in El Paso, where at least half the crossers are commuting to work.

About one-fourth of the nation’s 4,025 Border Patrol agents work along the California-Mexico border.

The Senate action, on a 90-10 vote, followed similar approval by the House on Wednesday. The $25-billion funding bill for the Commerce, State and Justice departments and other related agencies goes to the White House. President Clinton is expected to sign it.

The $171-million immigration package provides $40 million to build four immigrant detention facilities, including an $11-million jail in San Francisco. Money also will be set aside to hire asylum officers and interpreters at airports, for new vehicles and improved communications equipment for the Border Patrol, and for 200 additional land border inspectors.

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The $45 million for 600 new Border Patrol agents was added to the House appropriations bill by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon). Fanned by a growing national furor over the economic impact of illegal immigration, the amendment sailed through both houses of Congress.

“Without adequate funding, personnel and equipment for the Border Patrol, the taxpayers will continue to pay a far higher price to service illegal immigrants once they are in the United States,” Hunter said. “Illegal immigration costs us so much (that) we can’t afford not to get control of our border.”

Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said: “In the absence of sweeping reform of current federal immigration laws, the only way to prevent illegal immigrants from imposing huge costs on the taxpayers is to keep illegal immigrants from entering this country in the first place.”

A California state government study released this month contends that illegal immigration costs state taxpayers $5 billion a year. Most of the cost is attributed to law enforcement, social services, education and health care expenses.

In addition to passage of the appropriations bill, two new immigration proposals were introduced this week.

Feinstein submitted a seven-point plan Wednesday aimed at bolstering the federal government’s ability to enforce its borders. Her Immigration Law Enforcement Act of 1993 would provide funding to increase the Border Patrol by an additional 1,400 agents by imposing a $1 fee on anyone crossing any land border point or seaport while entering the United States.

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Two California House members introduced legislation that includes rollbacks on the numbers of legal immigrants and an overhaul of asylum rules.

The plan, sponsored by Reps. Richard Lehman (D-North Fork) and Hunter, would reduce the number of legal immigrants from 800,000 to 350,000.

“The law now has too many loopholes and too many special categories,” Lehman said. “This legislation would get us back to the (legal immigration) levels we had in 1970.”

Times staff writers James Bornemeier in Washington and Sebastian Rotella in San Diego contributed to this article.

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