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Homeland Security chief promotes immigration reform in Mexico visit

MEXICO CITY – U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday that immigration reform would let U.S. law enforcement focus on catching criminals instead of “future housekeepers and landscapers.”

But he said Americans are unlikely to back any such reform until added security along the Mexican border convinces them that they’re safe.

In his first official visit to Mexico, Chertoff told foreign reporters that the 6,000 National Guard troops who have been providing logistical support to the Border Patrol along the 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) line in May have dramatically deterred people from crossing. Arrests are down, while less people have been seen gathering to cross on the Mexican side, he said.

But security alone is not enough to permanently stop illegal border jumpers, Chertoff warned, adding that he expects flows to go up again as smugglers regroup.

“Every time a Border Patrol officer is transporting a load of future housekeepers and landscapers to some place to be returned, he’s not looking for drug dealers or drug loads,” Chertoff said.

“So to me, total immigration reform that addresses economic migrants is actually an enforcement enabler because it lets us focus more on the people that we don’t want in the country under any circumstances, namely the criminals and the dangerous folks.”

Officials from Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department and President Felipe Calderon’s office said they had no immediate comment on Chertoff’s remarks.

Mexico has been pushing for years for a U.S. immigration accord. U.S. President George W. Bush has proposed a guest-worker program that would allow Mexicans living abroad to seek temporary work visas, but Congress has refused to back it.

U.S. lawmakers instead have supported building more border walls and beefing up security.

Chertoff said, however, that border officials say it may not be necessary to build all 700 miles (1,130 kilometers) of border fences as proposed in legislation Bush signed into law last year.

Instead, border enforcement authorities would like the flexibility to build walls where needed but other areas may be better monitored by ground sensors and other technology.

“We’re asking Congress’ leaders to give us flexibility to build tactical infrastructure that makes sense in the right place, in the right sequence, as opposed to just a mandate that we lay down, you know, 700 miles (1,130 kilometers) of fence from California … through most of Arizona.”

Next week, Chertoff plans to head to the Arizona border to see the first 28 miles (45 kilometers) of ground sensors being installed as part of a border-wide strategy.

Chertoff said National Guard troops will be phased out when the U.S. Border Patrol reaches its goal of hiring 18,319 agents, which the agency is on target to do by the end of 2008.

Chertoff commended Calderon for extraditing to the U.S. four Mexican drug lords in January and leading a federal crackdown designed to retake smuggling strongholds from drug traffickers.

The arrests of several key drug leaders under former President Vicente Fox led to bloody turf battles in which drug gangs beheaded their enemies and openly defied authorities.

Chertoff said he discussed with Mexico’s top security officials how to better coordinate efforts to combat border violence and increase the exchange of information on drug and human traffickers on both sides. They also discussed strategies in stemming the tide of illegal migrants from Central and South America who pass through Mexico on their way to the U.S.

Chertoff also said the U.S. and Mexico need to ensure that their energy infrastructure is protected after an Internet threat by a Saudi Arabian terrorist faction affiliated with al-Qaida urged attacks against oil installations in countries that export petroleum to the U.S. – namely Mexico, Canada and Venezuela.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said in its monthly online magazine that “cutting oil supplies to the United States, or at least curtailing it, would contribute to the ending of the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.” The group said it was making the statements as part of Osama bin Laden’s declared policy.

Chertoff said the threat was not specific but reflects that terrorism “is not just an American problem.”

“It is a problem of all civilized countries.”

Mexico and the United States need to pinpoint vulnerabilities in their energy sectors and develop strategies to respond to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

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