March 14, 2005, 9:14PM

Border Patrol training blasted
Security at issue as Cornyn-led panel reviews procedures
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - U.S. Border Patrol agents are not sufficiently trained or equipped to deal with the stream of people illegally crossing into the United States, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Monday.

"We will never have effective enforcement at our borders unless we adequately train the people we task with carrying out the job," Cornyn said at a hearing of the Senate's subcommittee on immigration and border security.

"I am deeply troubled by our chronic inability, even our unwillingness at times, to do what it takes to enforce our immigration laws," Cornyn said.

The Monday session marked the beginning of a series of hearings that Cornyn, the committee chair, plans to hold on border security.

He co-hosted the hearing with Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who heads the subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security.

Thomas Walters, the assistant commissioner for training of Border Patrol agents, said progress has been made.

"We are trying to give (agents) all the tools they need," he said. "We have never paid more attention to our borders than we are now. If we are not quite there yet, we are on the way."

Detection training
Agents receive training in how to detect fraudulent travel documents and to identify evidence of weapons of mass destruction, Walters said. About 100 agents also are trained to run exercises dealing with chemical, radiological, nuclear and biological weapons attacks at the border.

But Border Patrol officials are often hamstrung by inefficient procedures, Cornyn said.

Detention centers are crowded, and illegal immigrants with clean criminal records often are released and asked to return at a later date for a deportation hearing. In Texas last year, about 40 percent of illegal immigrants set to appear in court failed to return.

Exit strategy
The Department of Homeland Security has not completed the exit portion of the $1 billion US-VISIT program, which takes finger scans and digital photographs of most foreign visitors to the United States and runs the data against criminal and terrorist watch lists.

"Once visitors are in the country, if they are not exiting, it seems like we would have a big problem on our hands trying to locate them," said Elaine Dezenski, the assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning at the DHS.

Cornyn estimated there are 10 million people in the country illegally. "And the fact is, we don't know where they are, and we don't know how to enforce the law and deport them back to their country of origin."

The session came while a growing number of lawmakers from both parties are criticizing the Bush administration for not spending enough on border security.