National policy calls for stopping illegal immigration at the border line

May 21, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

One by one the vehicles heading west on Highway 86 toward Coachella race by the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint as if it isn't there.

It isn't.

For more than a year the Border Patrol's two key checkpoints in the Imperial Valley — one on Highway 86 and another on Highway 111 north of Niland — have been closed.

They are the casualties of the limited resources in the vast area known as the Border Patrol's El Centro sector and of a national policy that calls for stopping illegal immigration at the border line.

In the Imperial Valley the "line" is the 72-mile stretch of linear border that daily is the scene of illegal immigration.


Border Patrol officials have said the forward deployment on the line in the El Centro sector, deemed the El Centro Initiative, is working.

This year apprehensions of undocumented immigrants have decreased and officials say that is due, at least in part, to the initiative. The idea is that those trying to cross are discouraged from doing so by the strong presence along the border fence.

Still, Border Patrol officials concede they are missing an important part of the illegal immigration containment effort by not having the checkpoints manned.

"They are an absolutely vital segment of our operation," said El Centro Sector Chief Kenneth Stitt.

Stitt sat down recently to talk to a reporter about the impact not operating the checkpoints has on Border Patrol efforts.

From October 1999 through June 2000, the last recorded period the checkpoints were manned on a regular basis, there were some 4,830 undocumented immigrant apprehensions at the checkpoints.

Border Patrol officials said that number equates to about 2 percent of the apprehensions for that period, which reached upward of 200,000.

Stitt said while the checkpoints bring about a relatively small number of apprehensions, having the checkpoints manned 24 hours a day provides a containment field for the Border Patrol.

Not having the checkpoints manned means there is a chance if a smuggler gets past the line, he could get his cargo out of the Valley.

Stitt acknowledges that may be the case.

He said because he thinks the checkpoints are an important part of the Border Patrol's effort his goal is to have the checkpoints running again within 18 months.

However, he said that depends on a number of things happening.

For one, he wants 200 to 250 agents added to the El Centro Sector.

Stitt also is developing an idea that calls for realigning the sector, which includes the El Centro, Calexico and Indio stations.

The Calexico station covers an isolated area that includes the stretch from Drop 3 along the All-American Canal to the West Main Canal and north to just south of Interstate 8.

That means the more than 200 Border Patrol agents assigned to the Calexico station cover the stretch of border fence in the city's downtown.

The more than 200 agents of the El Centro station cover the area that stretches east and west from Calexico. The El Centro station also is responsible for the rest of the Imperial Valley.

Stitt said while it may seem the El Centro station has the worst of it, there is a heavy concentration of illegal entry through Calexico's downtown that demands a large force.

Nevertheless, Stitt said he would like to see the area's covered by the stations realigned. He declined to speak in detail about that, adding more could be released in the next six months.

He did say such a realignment could create a situation where the checkpoints could be manned again.

"If you don't have the ability to man them 24 hours a day, then they (smugglers) will wait you out," Stitt said.

He added the effort to curtail illegal immigration will work best when the checkpoints are in operation.

"It has to be an integrated effort that uses them both (the checkpoints and strong force on the line)," he said. "One is not as effective without the other."

Not having the checkpoints running means smuggling organizations have less need to depend on stash houses in the Imperial Valley, which are used to hide groups of undocumented immigrants until it is deemed safe to finish the journey out of the Valley.

Stitt did say it is important to note he thinks the decision to focus resources on the line was a good choice based on the resources in the El Centro sector.

"It simply is a matter of deciding where we are going to place personnel," he said. "I think it was the right decision and it still is the right decision."

Stitt added, "Our focus has to be on the immediate border. That's where it has to happen."

With the focus on the line and new technology such as 18 video cameras installed on large polls in the area of the Calexico station, illegal immigration is being deterred, he said.

Stitt hopes to see additional technology in the form of more cameras placed along the border fence covered by the El Centro station.

He said with enough agents and the right technology, it is possible to wage a successful battle against illegal immigration, but it will take time.

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