Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Flow of illegal immigrants to U.S. starts to slow - Mexico border fence and Guardsmen complicate crossings

Flow of illegal immigrants to U.S. starts to slow - Mexico border fence and Guardsmen complicate crossings
By James C. McKinley Jr.
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: February 20, 2007

SAN LUIS RÍO COLORADO, Mexico: All along the U.S.-Mexican border, there are signs that the measures that the U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies have taken over the past year, from erecting new barriers to posting 6,000 National Guardsmen as armed sentinels, are beginning to slow the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.

For 10 years, Eduardo Valenzuela has been crossing the Mexican border near Yuma, Arizona, illegally, trekking over desert scrub and hopping on a freight train to get to his job with a construction company in Phoenix, Arizona.

But on a recent afternoon, Valenzuela and four travel companions from his hometown of Los Mochis plopped down on a bench in a park in the border town of San Luis Río Colorado, exhausted and dispirited. Border patrol agents had caught them two times over three days, hounding them with helicopters and four-wheel-drive trucks.

"It's become much more difficult," Valenzuela said, echoing the comments of dozens of other migrants.

The only barometer to gauge whether migrants are being discouraged to attempt entering the United States is how many migrants are caught. In the past four months, the number has dropped 27 percent compared with the same period last year. In two sections around Yuma and near Del Rio, Texas, the numbers have fallen by nearly two- thirds, officials from the U.S.

"We are comfortable that this actually reflects a change in momentum," Michael Chertoff, secretary for homeland security, said in an interview last week during his first official visit to Mexico City. "I'm always quick to say it doesn't mean we can declare victory. To some degree, I expect the criminal organizations, or smugglers, are pulling back a little, watching to see if we lose interest."

Border Patrol commanders argue the slackening flow of migrants belies the conventional wisdom that it is impossible to stem illegal migration along a 2,000 mile, or 3,200 kilometer, border. Many veteran officers in the force are now beginning to believe that with sufficient resources, it can be controlled.

The new measures range from simply putting more officers out on patrol to erecting stadium lights, secondary fences and barriers of thick, steel poles to stop smugglers from racing across the desert. The Border Patrol has deployed hundreds of new guards to watch rivers, man surveillance cameras and guard fences.

In Yuma, for instance, Ronald Colburn said that with the help of the National Guard they had doubled the agents to about 900, increased patrols, extended the primary steel wall out 8 miles past the end of San Luis Río Colorado, and constructed a vehicle barrier 6 miles beyond that. They have also built stadium lights and a secondary fence along the border where the town lies. "It's the right mix, the right recipe."

The U.S. government has also begun punishing migrants with prison time from the first time they enter illegally in some areas. For instance, along the 210 mile border covered by the Del Rio office of the Border Patrol, everyone caught crossing illegally is charged in federal court and sentenced to at least two weeks in prison.

That is an enormous break with past practice, when most Mexican migrants were simply taken back to the border and let go.

Near Yuma, in the Mexican town of San Luis Río Colorado, the effects of the stepped up patrols are apparent. A year ago, migrants thronged the town park and cheap motels, while guides, known as "coyotes" or "polleros" offered their services. Now the park is nearly empty. Motels have plenty of vacancies.

The smugglers are telling their charges to take a bus to a spot called El Sahuaro about an hour east of town. From there they must walk for two days through rocky canyons and over barren desert to reach Interstate Highway 8.

On the other side, Border Patrol agents say they are picking up about 100 people a day, rather than the 500 a day they handled a year ago.

Several migrants waiting their chance in San Luis curse under their breath in Spanish when asked about the soldiers and patrols. Some are indignant that the United States would treat them like enemies or criminals.

"It's harder and harder and that's the reason why people are dying on the desert," said Miguel Perez, a 24-year- old migrant from the state of Guerrero.

Perez worked for six years in a Colorado factory after entering on a student visa. Then he was caught driving without a license and deported. Now he says he is willing to risk anything to make it back. "I got used to it, you know," he said. "The good money."

A year ago, a flood of immigrants from Central America was also overwhelming the border patrol in Del Rio and Eagle Pass, two small Texas towns on the Rio Grande. The migrants took advantage of a lack of jail space, which had led to the policy of giving them a hearing date and letting them go.

Randy Clark, the agent in charge of Eagle Pass, said the migrants would cross the river in droves in broad daylight, run up to Border Patrol agents and line up to be arrested. More than 200 a day crossed in Eagle Pass alone.

Never intended as a jail, the processing center at Eagle Pass became so jammed with people some would stay up to three days waiting to be fingerprinted and released. Agents were so busy feeding and processing migrants they had little time for patrolling.

"It was a madhouse, literally a madhouse," Clark, the agent, said.

Clark and his colleagues attribute the reversal to two policy changes. First, the Justice Department gave the Border Patrol agents the ability to deport most of the Central Americans in an expedited manner, without a hearing before a judge, which closed a loophole.

Then, in December 2005, the U.S. government started prosecuting everyone the Border Patrol picked up for illegal entry, a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 6 months in county, state and federal jails for a first offense.

There is a human cost. Across the river in Ciudad Acuña, migrants arrive every afternoon after serving their prison sentences. Many come across the international bridge bewildered and penniless. They face more trouble just getting home again. In interviews, several said they had no idea they were running the risk of serving time in jail.

One of the migrants was a 51-year-old plumber from Acámbaro, Guanajuato, who asked that his name not be used because he was ashamed of the criminal conviction. He said he was trying to get to San Antonio, Texas, where a friend had promised to get him a job at a water park, making $400 a week, far more than the $150 he earns at home.

"I had no idea until they grabbed us and told us we were going to court," he recalled. "They are using barbaric techniques." But he acknowledged the stint in jail had convinced him not to try again, even if he is unable to pay his son's college tuition.

"No way," he said, shaking his head.


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