WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States may be unable to meet its timetable for essentially stopping illegal immigration across its border with Mexico by 2011, a Bush administration official told Congress on Thursday.
Ralph Basham, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the government was working to meet the target set in November 2005 of having "operational control" of U.S. borders within five years.
But he said the goal of the so-called Secure Border Initiative was based in part upon assumptions, such as passage of comprehensive immigration reforms,
that have not been met.
"We're going to be pushing to meet those goals ... but I cannot with any assurance tell you right now that we'll meet them," he said.
Basham had been asked at a hearing of the House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security whether it was possible to secure the entire southwestern U.S. border by 2011.
Gregory Giddens, executive director of the border initiative, said a decline in apprehensions of people trying to cross the border is among the signs that border crackdown is working.
"We are making significant progress in getting control of the border," Giddens said.
Immigration policy has become a major issue in this year's U.S. presidential election campaign, after fierce opposition doomed efforts to pass a broad immigration overhaul.
Some chastened supporters of a broad overhaul, including Arizona Sen. John McCain
-- the presumed Republican presidential nominee -- then vowed to "fix the border" first.
"We are going to secure our borders and end illegal immigration. These are goals that are not negotiable," Rep. Hal Rogers
, a Kentucky Republican, told the subcommittee hearing.
The hearing came a week after the watchdog Government Accountability Office reported problems in the border initiative.
It said a demonstration high-tech "virtual fence" built along a 28-mile stretch of the border in Arizona, had been delayed several months by technical problems, some of which remain unresolved.
Also, GAO said, opposition from some landowners threatened plans to complete 670 miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border by the end of this year.
In testimony on Thursday, GAO Director Richard Stana said problems with the virtual fence included slow imaging systems, unreliable cameras linked to intruder-sensing radar and dead spots that could not receive wireless signals.
But he denied reports the eight-month delay in the project would set back high-tech border efforts by three years.
Rogers noted that Congress had allocated $2.7 billion toward border security since 2006, and is considering President George W. Bush's request for $775 million more in fiscal 2008.
"We need to know how this moves the ball forward toward securing the border and when," he said. "There are no more excuses. ... It is time to succeed where others have failed."
(Editing by Todd Eastham)