Department of Justice Seal

Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey at the State of the Border Press Briefing

Friday, February 22, 2008

Good Afternoon. Thank you Secretary Chertoff.

The security of our borders raises issues basic to us as a nation. The ability to control who—and what—comes into and out of a country is one of the most important attributes of a sovereign government, and being able to do that is vital to our nation’s security.

Despite Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, we have done a lot to help secure our borders over the last few years, but there is still a lot to be done. This is especially true in connection with our Southwest Border.

Addressing the many problems associated with the border is among my highest priorities. Because of that, one of the first trips I made as Attorney General was to the Southwest Border and to Mexico, an indispensable partner in our border enforcement efforts.

On that trip—just over one month ago—I visited the Port of Entry at Nogales, Arizona, and took a helicopter trip along the border. I met with the federal prosecutors and law enforcement officers who serve on the front lines of the effort to secure our borders. I met with a group of judges who preside over many of the cases that the Department brings. I also met with the five United States Attorneys whose districts comprise the Southwest Border.

I came away from that trip with an appreciation for the challenges and complexities we face along the Border, and the resources needed to address them. My subsequent work on these issues has deepened my understanding of the challenges we still face.

One of the main lessons I learned is that one size does not fit all . . . that flexibility is key. That’s true for two reasons. First, each border sector, and each border district, has its own challenges, its own issues, and its own opportunities based on terrain, traffic flow, crime patterns, and resources. What may work in one sector or district doesn’t necessarily work in another.

Second, the situation on the border is dynamic. That is, the criminals we are dealing with—alien smugglers, drug smugglers, gun smugglers, and the like—watch carefully where we are and what we do. In my helicopter trip along the border, for example, I was shown how smugglers have deployed car-battery-operated surveillance equipment to track the movement of our law enforcement agents. As we adjust our practices and policies, the smugglers adjust theirs accordingly. It is crucial, therefore, that we change our tactics from time to time, and place to place—that we stay one step ahead of those we’re trying to stop.

Although one size doesn’t fit all, as is true elsewhere, it is absolutely critical that we work together—that the left hand knows what the right is doing. It doesn’t make our country as a whole any safer for one district to solve a problem by pushing that problem into another district.

Mindful of these challenges, the Justice Department is developing a Southwest Border enforcement strategy that is not only comprehensive, but also flexible in responding to the particular needs and challenges of each sector and each district.

Working closely with our partners at the Department of Homeland Security, one of our main goals is to reduce incentives for people to come to this country illegally. Put another way, we are seeking to raise the costs of coming here illegally – especially for those who come here illegally and commit additional crimes, like narcotics trafficking and gun trafficking. For example:

-As Secretary Chertoff announced a few minutes ago, next week we are increasing civil fines imposed on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants by 25 percent, the maximum allowed by law and the first such increase since 1999; we are also working with DHS to increase criminal prosecutions against the most egregious employer offenders.

-We are increasing prosecutions for entry without inspection through programs like Operation Streamline.  These programs appear to have had a significant deterrent effect on illegal immigration in places like Del Rio, Texas and Yuma, Arizona, reducing the number of individuals returning illegally to the United States and discouraging others from coming here illegally in the first instance.  We have begun a pilot misdemeanor prosecution program in Tucson, Arizona, and we will be examining the results for possible implementation elsewhere.

-In partnership with DHS, we are working to improve rates of prosecution and deportation of criminal aliens, especially gang members, who are detained in American jails and prisons. The Central District of California, for example, introduced a pilot program in 2006, and the following year there was a 116% increase in prosecutions of criminal aliens for illegal reentry. We are reviewing that program with an eye toward expanding it to the Southwest Border districts and other districts.

-And we are closing the so-called voluntary departure loophole, which allows illegal aliens to remain in the country by continuing to litigate their cases, even though they have agreed to leave voluntarily and received certain benefits for doing so. We published a proposed rule in November and, pending a Supreme Court decision on a related issue, we expect to issue a final rule later this year.

In addition to these changes, the Justice Department is doing what it can to be more responsive to those who are entitled to be in this country. One way we are doing so is by having the FBI work closely with DHS to improve the process for conducting name checks for immigrants seeking changes in their status.  It is important to check law enforcement and intelligence files relating to these aliens, but the sheer volume of checks has led to a huge backlog. The backlog is now decreasing and the FBI continues to address the problem – for example, by hiring a significant number of new employees and contractors this year and making other procedural and technological improvements.

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Our strategy must—and it will—produce measurable results, and we’re working hard to secure the necessary resources. We are also working hard to streamline our cases and operations, not just to minimize our own costs but also to reduce the burdens that our increased enforcement efforts impose on the court system.

Our needs are massive. In FY2007, for example, the five Southwest Border U.S. Attorney’s Offices prosecuted almost 12,000 felony immigration cases – almost two-thirds of the national total. When you add the increasingly large number of misdemeanor prosecutions to the mix, with programs like Operation Streamline, the burdens on these offices are staggering. These programs impose other costs on the Department as well, from need for detention space, to costs for prisoner security and transportation. Our prosecutors and law enforcement officers on the frontlines are making heroic efforts with the resources they have, but they need more.

Just two months ago, Congress appropriated a total of $22 million to support our prosecutors and U.S. Marshals on the Southwest Border. We are using that money to hire additional prosecutors, support staff, and Deputy U.S. Marshals. By December 2008, we expect to add as many as 50 new attorneys and 100 Deputy U.S. Marshals dedicated to border enforcement. That’s a good start, but we need to maintain our momentum.

So this year, the Administration is seeking an extra $100 million in funds for the Department’s Southwest Border Enforcement Initiative. With that money, we hope to hire more than 265 employees, including over 50 attorneys to support increased prosecutions for immigration, drug, and firearms offenses; over 50 Deputy U.S. Marshals to improve prisoner security and transportation; and over 25 Drug Enforcement Administration agents to reduce the flow of drugs into our country from the South.

These resources are absolutely necessary to deal with the problems at the border, including the growing problem of cross-border violence and gang threats. They are also needed to keep pace with the increase in Border Patrol agents that Secretary Chertoff has discussed, since more Border Patrol agents means more cases for the Justice Department to handle. Congress rightfully will expect to see results for that money, and we’re focusing on the best ways to achieve our goals and measure the results.

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As I mentioned a few minutes ago, from my visit to the Southwest Border, I traveled on to Mexico, my first foreign destination as Attorney General. There I met with President Calderon and my counterpart, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora. We discussed various issues relating to the border, including cooperation to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico to the United States. We also discussed our efforts to cut down the flow of guns from the United States to Mexico and to reduce the violence at or near the border.

I’m pleased to tell you that the level of cooperation I have seen and experienced with the Mexican government and law enforcement is unprecedented. Only this week, a delegation from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security—including the border United States Attorneys and high-level officials from the DEA, ATF, FBI, Customs and Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement—met with their counterparts in Mexico to improve cooperation and coordination across the border. We expect that kind of cross-border exchange to continue, as the sharing of information and the building of productive relationships are crucial to the success of our efforts.

All of this increased cooperation with Mexico has led to real dividends. We’ve seen record numbers of extraditions from Mexico. We’ve seen a government, in the Calderon administration that is willing to take the fight to the cartels. We’ve seen an increase in the numbers of law enforcement officers and vetted units that we can partner with. And we’ve seen searches and arrests not just here but also in Mexico, including the seizure last month of an underground target range in Tijuana that was actually a training ground for drug cartel assassins. That’s one facility we can all be glad is out of business.

Our enforcement efforts at the Southwest Border are making a difference, but our nation’s security calls for more. That will require a comprehensive yet flexible enforcement plan, and considerable resources to address the problems associated with the border. The Department of Justice, in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, is developing such a plan, and we’re actively pursuing the necessary resources.

Thank you very much.