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Illegal immigrant arrests up 68% since 1994 crackdown

August 09, 2001|By MARINE COLE, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Arrests of illegal immigrants at the southwest border have increased by almost 68 percent since the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began a crackdown there in 1994, according to a government report.

As the Border Patrol increased its efforts in areas such as El Paso and San Diego, arrest rates shifted as expected to less populated areas such as El Centro, Tucson, and Laredo and Del Rio, Texas, the report said.

Of the nine southwest Border Patrol sectors, Tucson had the highest number of arrests in 2000 with 616,346 compared with 139,473 in 1994, followed by El Centro with 238,126 in 2000 compared with 27,654 in 1994. In San Diego, arrests fell to 151,681 in 2000, compared with 450,152 in 1994.

But in the past year, arrests declined by 26 percent from January to April 2001 compared with the same period in 2000. The report said the main reason for this decrease was INS strategy had deterred illegal entry.

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Other reasons cited include an increased optimism about the future in Mexico as well as a slower U.S. economy that reduced chances to find employment in the United States. The study was conducted by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Also, an increase in illegal alien traffic is more likely to occur in border communities that have infrastructure that facilitates aliens transiting through them, immigration service officials said. Smugglers need towns that have sufficient housing to hide aliens from authorities as well as vehicles to transport aliens out of the area, the report said.

"The shift in illegal alien traffic to certain small, border communities has had varied effects on the communities, depending on such factors as the routes illegal aliens used to transit through them, the level of Border Patrol presence in specific locations, how much barrier fencing was in place and how the community perceived the situation," the report said.

According to the GAO, in Calexico, local police officials said they noted a significant increase in prowler calls and vehicle thefts as illegal alien traffic shifted from San Diego to Calexico. However, police officials said there was a drop in reported prowler incidents and auto thefts after the INS added resources and completed erecting a fence in downtown Calexico in 1999.

The report also said that crimes against illegal aliens had increased because the migrants were forced to attempt entry into the United States through remote areas outside town, where criminal activity is less likely to be detected.

"These crimes are difficult to prosecute because they typically involve Mexican nationals harming other Mexican nationals," the report said.

The GAO has noticed illegal immigrants shifted their efforts from urban areas to more remote areas such as rivers, mountains or deserts. Immigration officials said they didn't anticipate the attempts to enter through such dangerous environments, expecting that such natural barriers would act as a deterrent.

Border Patrol data showed that 1,013 immigrants died trying to cross the Southwest border illegally between October 1997 and June 1, 2001, about 60 percent from heat exposure or drowning.

The INS began a safety education program in June 1998 with the Mexican government, producing videos for Mexican television to inform people of the danger of illegal crossing. Warning signs also have been posted on both sides of the border fences.

"For example, the El Centro sector has a desert rescue team whose members have been trained in emergency medical procedures or first aid," the report said.

The INS estimated it may need 11,700 to 14,000 agents to fully implement the southwest border strategy, or between 3,200 and 5,500 more than at the end of fiscal 2000. The INS also will need more infrastructure such as video surveillance and new buildings to accommodate equipment and agents.

The Border Patrol's fiscal 2001 budget is $1.2 million, a 9 percent increase from the 2000 budget.

Finally, the GAO advised the INS to make wider use of a system identifying individuals more quickly and accurately. The system called Automated Biometric Identification System or IDENT, captures the left and right index fingerprints and a photo of the person. It also enables searches of on-line databases to identify criminal and non-criminal aliens who are eligible for deportation.

According to the GAO, the data could lead to a better understanding of the arrest statistics the INS service routinely reports.

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