WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 -Acknowledging public frustration over illegal immigrants, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday that the federal government's border control efforts must be significantly strengthened.
"We have decided to stand back and take a look at how we address the problem and solve it once and for all," Mr. Chertoff said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. "The American public is rightly distressed about a situation in which they feel we do not have the proper control over our borders."
The unusually blunt assessment by the nation's top immigration official follows border-related emergency declarations by the governors of New Mexico and Arizona, who cited a surge in smuggling and violence associated with a steady flow of illegal immigrants.
The strategy that Mr. Chertoff said his department was preparing goes far beyond hiring more Border Patrol agents and installing more surveillance cameras, infrared and motion detectors, and fences, initiatives that are already planned or under way.
In addition to those apprehension efforts, the secretary intends to bolster the deportation process so that an overwhelmed detention system does not cause illegal immigrants to be set free instead of being sent home. He plans to add beds for detainees, expedite deportations by making more judges and lawyers available, and try to track down more illegal immigrants who do not appear for deportation hearings.
Over the last decade, the number of Border Patrol agents has climbed to about 11,000 from 4,000. The number of arrests of illegal migrants along the border, meanwhile, a figure that had dropped after the Sept. 11 attacks, has surged in the last couple of years, and again tops more than a million annually.
So many illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico are being caught - 142,500 so far this fiscal year, compared with 39,555 in all of 2000 - that thousands are released within the United States before deportation proceedings because there is not enough space at detention centers.
"If you have not arranged for the beds, you have not arranged to remove them, you are going to have to release them," Mr. Chertoff said. "That is completely a waste of time."
Homeland Security officials have provided no estimate of how much the secretary's new initiatives will cost. The government is already spending $7.3 billion a year in border-related expenses, they say, a 58 percent increase since the Sept. 11 terrorism.
Mr. Chertoff, a former federal prosecutor and judge who took over the Homeland Security Department in February, is far from the first Washington official to promise a solution to the border control problem. But in his remarks at Tuesday's breakfast, sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, he said his staff was mapping every mile of the Mexican border and preparing estimates of how many illegal immigrants use each of the various entry corridors so he could best decide how to deploy 1,000 or so new Border Patrol agents Congress appears likely to provide for the coming year.
The department will also then identify where it should place as many as 2,250 new detention beds that will be financed in next year's budget, a 10 percent increase. It also plans to place immigration judges closer to detention centers and allocate more money for lawyers who argue deportation cases on behalf of the government, increasing capacity in part by simply deporting illegal immigrants faster, a Homeland Security official said after Mr. Chertoff spoke.
The new campaign also entails an eventual doubling of the number of fugitive search teams to track down those who do not show up for deportation hearings, the official said. Further, the Homeland Security Department is working with the State Department to speed action on visa applications by students, workers and tourists, in an effort to reduce the incentive to enter the country illegally.
Mr. Chertoff said he sympathized with the governors of New Mexico and Arizona, each of whom declared a state of emergency in the last 11 days and dispatched additional state and local law enforcement teams to border areas.
"We are moving forward quickly and aggressively to fashion a comprehensive plan with real solutions," he wrote in a letter sent Monday to Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona.
New Mexico's governor, Bill Richardson, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he spoke with Mr. Chertoff earlier in the morning and was encouraged by what he was hearing.
"I am a bit more optimistic," Mr. Richardson said. "It is the first time I have gotten attention to my previous pleas."
Mr. Chertoff said he opposed the creation of citizen militias like the one that patrolled the border in Arizona earlier this year.
"The border is a very dangerous place," he said. "This is not a place for people to play as amateurs."
He also again urged Congress to pass President Bush's proposal establishing a new temporary-worker program, which would legalize entry of some migrant workers who now cross the border illegally. Enactment would almost certainly reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, he said, allowing Border Patrol and immigration enforcement officials to focus on more serious offenders, or perhaps even terrorists, trying to enter the country.
Some immigration experts questioned Tuesday whether this latest push to stabilize the border would result in much change. For example, these experts said, the Bush administration has not indicated any willingness to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"If you have a boat with numerous holes in it, the boat will sink unless you plug all of the holes effectively," said Michael W. Cutler, a former senior immigration enforcement special agent who is now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research group. "He is only addressing a few of the holes, meaning he may slow the flow but it will not solve the problem in the long run."