New tactics disrupt illegal immigration
The Border Patrol is using an array of tools to cut down on illicit border crossings. Interviews suggest the crackdown is having an effect.
By Richard Marosi, Times Staff Writer
March 21, 2007
SASABE, MEXICO The dusty Grand Central Station of illegal journeys into the United States lies on the fringes of this village near the Arizona border, in a junkyard littered with demolished cars.
Migrants wearing backpacks meet smugglers here and pile into pickup trucks for bumpy rides to crossing points across the vast Altar Valley.
But these days many of those who set out to cross the border soon return, unsuccessful and exhausted. Hundreds who manage to cross each day are apprehended swiftly on the U.S. side.
Crossing has become so difficult that the number of people coming to Sasabe has dropped by more than two-thirds from last year, according to Mexican officials.
The turn of events here in the busiest illegal-immigration corridor on the border where more than 1 million migrants have entered in recent years is among the most dramatic examples of how tougher border enforcement is disrupting the flow of migrants.
Previous crackdowns have served only to shift illegal crossings to new areas, but so far this year there are no signs that the border has sprung another leak. Apprehensions have decreased in every area along the Southwest border, in some places by more than two-thirds.
Overall, apprehensions from October 2006 through last month were down 30% from the same period a year earlier, from 433,446 to 304,071, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Interviews with dozens of migrants as well as medical workers, experts and activists on both sides of the border back up the assertions of U.S. and Mexican authorities that fewer people are trying to cross and that those who do try are more likely to get caught.
Late last month, Jesus Jose Bosquez, 25, and 200 others wandered in the hills for two days trying to get to Tucson.
“The Border Patrol was everywhere,” said Bosquez, who was interviewed after he gave up and returned to Sasabe.
Bosquez has crossed illegally several times but now doubts whether he will ever be able to return to his wife and kids in Chicago.
“The situation is very difficult,” he said.
Rite of passage
No one claims any permanent disruptions of migration yet. The migrant experience is almost a rite of passage for poor, young Mexicans, and hundreds of thousands still try to cross, many successfully. Experts point out that similar drops in apprehensions in years past were later followed by surges.
But U.S. border authorities, normally cautious after years of failed efforts to gain control, say they are increasingly confident that they are making significant progress, mainly because of new enforcement tools, with more on the way. About 2,500 new agents will be hired this year, adding to the 1,000 hired in 2006. About 3,000 National Guard troops are scheduled to remain on the border for another year. And the government has earmarked $1.2 billion for more barriers, sensors and surveillance equipment along the frontier.
“I think this is maybe the first time in history that we know that deterrence is taking hold,” said Michael Nicely, the recently retired chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.
Some experts say there may be other explanations, including the possibility that migrants are waiting to see if enforcement eases this spring.
Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, says smugglers eventually will find new routes into the country because the underlying incentives are stronger than ever.
“The modes of entry do change. Location of entries change. But the basic dynamics of the process don't change, because the economic factors and family ties that drive the movement haven't changed,” he said.
Still, Cornelius believes that many immigrants already in the U.S. have stopped going back to Mexico, slowing the huge circular migration.
Unlike past efforts that targeted specific areas, the recent enforcement buildup stretches across the entire border.
In San Diego last year, an area with double fencing that is already among the most heavily guarded on the border also got remote video surveillance cameras that see far into Tijuana's most notorious smuggling enclave.
In the Del Rio area of Texas, all illegal crossers, including first-timers who are typically returned to Mexico without facing charges, are now usually jailed for two weeks as part of a new zero-tolerance policy. Apprehensions in the area are down 61% from last year, according to the Border Patrol.
In the border regions of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, which many experts thought would see a jump in activity after the crackdown in Arizona, apprehensions are down 42%.
But it is Arizona, the favored crossing point of most migrants, that is experiencing the most significant disruptions as the peak migrant-crossing season approaches this month.
In the border town of San Luis, near Yuma, dozens of migrants at a time made frenzied dashes into the United States last year. Now such crossings have been blocked by double fencing and stadium lighting. Migrants who try to cross the nearby Colorado River face a string of National Guard observation posts. Apprehensions in the area have dropped 66%.
The sight of gun-toting National Guardsmen is a daunting deterrent, many migrants say. “It's as if Mexico and the United States are at war,” said Juan Martinez Lopez, 39, who was repeatedly detected by National Guard troops as he tried to make a river crossing.
Increased numbers of National Guard troops and Border Patrol agents have also been key to controlling the Sasabe area, where migrants by the thousands once spilled daily into the cactus-dotted desert valley trying to get to Tucson 70 miles away.
Several National Guard units from Tennessee now scan the terrain around Sasabe from hilltop outposts just off the border. Towers full of video-surveillance equipment provide another layer of coverage.
At night, an unmanned aerial vehicle uses thermal imaging to scan the desert. When it detects incursions, the coordinates are relayed to agents now equipped with GPS and they are able to respond to the exact locations within minutes.
Authorities say it's the combination of added manpower, infrastructure and technology that has made the difference. They expect crossing in the Sasabe area to get even tougher this summer when the Boeing Co. completes the first phase of a much-anticipated plan to install state-of-the-art surveillance equipment across the valley.
Signs of a slowdown
In a Mexican region sustained by the underground migrant economy, the signs of a slowdown are everywhere, especially in Altar, a town 70 miles south of Sasabe where migrants buy items for their crossings. Merchants there say they are selling far fewer water bottles, backpacks and other supplies.
On the dirt road leading to Sasabe, migrant traffic this year through February is down about 77% from last year, from 60,603 to about 14,000, according to the Mexican migrant safety force Grupo Beta, which monitors the road.
(The highway checkpoint where migrants are counted is open only during the day, when the majority of migrants travel on the road.)
People still cross the border each day here. But the numbers are in the hundreds, not the thousands.
At the junkyard on a recent day, migrants squeezed into the beds of pickup trucks 25 at a time and held on tight during the bumpy drive several miles east.
At a drop-off point, they climbed off the trucks, broke into groups of 60 and started walking single file through washes, mountain passes and cow pastures toward the border a few miles away.
Interviews with migrants and Grupo Beta agents indicate that on recent days, about 500 people have been crossing daily from the area. Border Patrol agents have been apprehending 300 to 400 immigrants daily in the area just across the border and many more at highway checkpoints nearby. Officials note that many migrants who try to cross don't show up in the apprehension figures because they give up and go back to Mexico.
That was the story for Gilberto Perez Osorio, 37, and 17 others who never even made a real attempt to cross the border. During the two days they spent hiding under mesquite trees waiting for an opportunity, Perez said, they repeatedly saw Border Patrol helicopters and SUVs converge within minutes whenever people crossed. At night, Perez said, he could hear the unmanned aerial vehicle whirring overhead.
Perez, a father of three from Toluca, Mexico, said his food and water ran out and he couldn't wait any longer. “They could see us even at night. It wasn't possible to cross,” said Perez, after being driven back to the junkyard in an old truck. “It's sad. I don't know what I'm going to do now.”
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Disrupting flow of immigrants
The number of illegal immigrants being apprehended by Border Patrol officers has dropped in every sector along the U.S.-Mexico border, with the biggest percentage decreases in the Yuma, Ariz., and Del Rio, Texas, areas.
Number of apprehensions, by Border Patrol sector
YearTotalSan DiegoEl CentroYumaTucson
YearTotalEl PasoMarfaDel RioLaredoValley
* Figures for 2006 and 2007 are from Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year, through Feb. 28.
Source: U.S. Border Patrol