A scandal involving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms entered its latest phase on Tuesday when officials from the bureau testified at a congressional hearing on a failed operation that landed around 2,000 guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
The operation, known as “Fast and Furious,” began in 2009 when the bureau essentially began allowing low-level cartel members to buy guns at Arizona gun stores -- the plan was to track the guns and tail the buyers back to their leaders in Mexico.
The plan didn't quite work out as expected. According to a report issued by a Republican congressional committee on Tuesday, more than 100 guns from the operation have turned up at crime scenes in Mexico or have been seized from people affiliated with the cartels, and the bureau has allegedly lost track of hundreds of others.
The congressional investigation and the botched operation that prompted it have cast a harsh light on the ATF. But it’s not just the bureau that’s coming under fire. Like just about every other news item relating to violent crime and the border, the scandal is also fanning the flames of a more wide-ranging and, for most Americans, familiar controversy: the immigration debate.
Advocates for tougher immigration laws are arguing that the whole debacle could have been avoided had the U.S. government done more to restrict immigration.
As for the proponents of immigrants’ rights, they’re insisting that firmer policies simply wouldn’t have had much effect on the flow of guns to Mexico one way or another.
Janice Kephart oversees national security issues for the Center for Immigration Studies, a D.C.-based think tank. In an interview after the hearing Tuesday, she blamed the scandal on the Obama administration.
“This administration has no border strategy,” she said. “There hasn’t been one articulated at all since this administration began, either verbally or in writing.”
Kephart is a hardcore opponent of illegal immigration who believes that the most efficient and effective way to stop the traffic of guns across the border would be to slow the traffic of people. The logic is simple (her opponents would call it simplistic): build a fence, and there won't be nearly as many immigrants crossing the border illegally. Keep out the illegals, and law enforcement agencies like the ATF won’t have to worry about people connected with Mexican drug cartels making trouble.
Asked to respond to these comments, an official with President Obama’s administration pointed to a document on border security released by the administration. It states, in part, that over the past two and a half years, the Department of Homeland Security has seized “75 percent more currency, 31 percent more drugs, and 64 percent more weapons along the Southwest border compared to two and a half years of the previous administration.”
The official also invoked a speech that the president gave on Monday in which he chastised Senate Republicans for blocking passage of the DREAM Act, an immigration reform measure that the president argued would have helped fix the country’s immigration system.
Another critic of the government's immigration policies is Michael W. Cutler, a former agent with the Immigration Naturalization Service. In a recent conversation, Cutler argued that naturalization process needs to be improved. He pointed to an instance several years ago in which the USCIS (formerly the INS) naturalized some 30,000 immigrants without consulting their files. (The agency claimed to have lost the files for those immigrants and about 80,000 others.)
Unless reforms are made to the process, Cutler said, terrorists and other violent criminals will continue to be able to enter the country and "hide in plain sight."
Sylvia Longmire, a retired Air Force captain and the author of “CARTEL: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars,” had this to say in response to criticisms of the government's immigration policies: “By curing illegal immigration, you’re not going to finish the weapons trafficking.”
In order to prevent drug cartels from acquiring weapons in the U.S., she said, Mexico would need to step up its customs enforcement. And the likelihood of that happening is slim, she added. “Mexico doesn’t inspect its own borders, so we’re left to do it,” she said.
Kathleen Walker, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, argued that America’s immigrant screening strategies are tough enough.
“Our immigration laws are extremely robust,” she said. “To reduce cartel activity and to reduce funding of that activity, then we need to have better intelligence and better relations with Mexico.”
She referred to the Merida Initiative, a controversial four-year-old effort by the U.S. to help Mexico and Central American countries combat drug trafficking. The program aims to decrease incentives for immigration by strengthening the Mexican economy, and it provides Mexico with funding for trainings in investigative techniques.
“Those activities are critical,” Walker said. ”Sending money to deal with a prophylactic measure is much more interesting than dealing with a problem when we’re at the border,” she added. “We need to handle these issues before they even get to the border.”
Correction: In a previous version of this article, a quote by Michael W. Cutler was misinterpreted. The new version accurately reflects his views.