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Borderline Insanity
Is America's battle against illegal immigration backfiring?

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Borderline Insanity

The Minutemen are coming. . . Border-crosser deaths have tripled. . . Southwest New Mexico's border counties are in a "state of emergency." Is America's battle against illegal immigration backfiring?

By David A. Fryxell

 

At the latest stop in Rep. Steve Pearce's "Immigration Listening Tour," the Bayard Community Center, the congressman's aides look uncomfortable in the early August heat, squirming in ill-fitting dark suits as they struggle to focus a PowerPoint presentation projected on the wall. Pearce himself, however, looks characteristically low-key, shunning a tie and shucking off his blue blazer before strolling into the gathering crowd to glad-hand. When the attendees start to cluster toward the back of the big room, Pearce has the chairs rearranged in a semi-circle-"to get more of a dialogue"-and urges people to move up. "It's not the Baptist church," he deadpans. "You all can't continue to sit back there." Obediently, the crowd shuffles forward.

If only the problems of illegal immigration and America's porous, increasingly deadly 2,000-mile border with Mexico could be solved as easily. The Bayard community meeting is one of 17 throughout Pearce's district-which, he points out, is 47 percent Hispanic. He'll follow up this "Listening Tour" by taking members of the House Homeland Security Committee-to which Pearce recently switched from the more desirable (at least in terms of pork-barrel potential) Transportation Committee-on a bus trip from El Paso along Highway 9, the bleeding edge of America's struggle against illegal immigration.

Carlos Provencio of the Southwest Hispanic Roundtable
and Rep. Steve Pearce.

It's a struggle Americans believe we're losing. In January, 77 percent of respondents in an ABC News poll said they wanted to see "tougher" measures against illegal immigration. Pearce's GOP colleague, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, is calling for troops to guard the Mexican border and warning of a threat to "Western civilization itself"; the House Immigration Reform Caucus, led by Tancredo (a possible 2008 presidential candidate), has jumped from 16 to 72 members (none, however, from New Mexico). Last year, despite opposition from the entire political establishment, Arizona voters passed Proposition 200, blocking illegal immigrants from most public services. And it's not just Anglos who are getting fed up: Proposition 200 garnered support from 47 percent of Arizona's Hispanic voters. This summer, a special issue of Time magazine focusing on the Hispanic influence in America also polled attitudes about illegal immigration: 61 percent of Hispanics said it was an "extremely serious" or "very serious" problem.

That breadth of concern can be seen in this morning's gathering in Bayard, where there are more tears shed than arguments shouted and people all along the ethnic and political scale rise to share their worries. Carlos Provencio, a self-described "staunch Democrat" and member of the Southwest Hispanic Roundtable, sets the tone as host: "There's a Latino word 'pueblo'-that's 'the people.' That's what we're doing here. When serious issues like immigration arise, we all need to come to the table."

"Very easily this issue of immigration can turn upside-down and turn into something none of us wants it to be," Pearce warns. "This is an emotional issue. The tone can become more strident and divisive unless we start having these open meetings. My fear is that when we don't talk about it, we leave the conversation to the people on the fringes."

Though unspoken, everyone in the room knows what he's talking about: the Minutemen, vigilantes who grabbed headlines with an April "vigil" along Arizona's border with Mexico and who promise a similarly high-profile crusade in New Mexico in October.

One of the first community members to speak, John Fleming, who describes himself as a "retired reservist," gives voice to this concern: "It's an insult for them to call themselves 'Minutemen.' That term has been tied to the National Guard for over 100 years."

Art Martinez, a professor emeritus of political science at Western New Mexico University, rises to agree: "There is no place for vigilantism in America." Martinez worries that the backlash against illegal immigrants will transfer to prejudice against the millions of Hispanics who are US citizens, some of whose families have been here for generations-"the large, loyal, hardworking Mexican-American population of the United States," he says.

"Both my parents emigrated from Mexico," Martinez continues. "That's something I am very proud of. I want to recall the Statue of Liberty and what is expressed there-this is a nation of immigrants, and almost everyone here is a descendant of immigrants. We want to continue to be a beacon of hope for those who are oppressed. We became a better country because of the immigrations that have taken place to America.

"But when an individual crosses a border illegally," he adds, "that is a criminal act. We must continue to secure our national borders."

 

Even those who condemn the Minutemen may grudgingly give them credit for shining a media spotlight on a long-simmering problem that began to boil over in 2005. According to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of "unauthorized migrants" living illegally in the US is approaching 11 million (other estimates run as high as 15 million); 57 percent of those came from Mexico, with another 24 percent from other Latin American countries. About 80 to 85 percent of the migration from Mexico in recent years has been undocumented. And the trend is sharply up: Since the mid-1990s, the number of unauthorized migrants arriving in the US each year-some 700,000, the Pew center estimates-has exceeded the number of new legal immigrants from all parts of the world. (A Time magazine report last year put the annual number of illegal arrivals far higher-at 3 million, "enough to fill 22,000 Boeing 737-700 airliners, or 60 flights every day for a year.") The Pew figure is still a huge leap from the 1980s, when only about 130,000 entered the country illegally each year and the total of unauthorized migrants living in the US hovered around 3 million; two-thirds of the illegal aliens in the US, according to the Pew study, have arrived in the past 10 years. The study puts the number of illegals in New Mexico at between 55,000 and 85,000.

What About Legal Immigration?

Not everyone who arrives in the US from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America does so illegally, of course. But the current quota of 20,000 permanent resident visas ("green cards") from Mexico falls far short of the demand both from Mexicans seeking to work in the US and from employers seeking to hire Mexican laborers. (Prior to 1976, Mexico was excluded from all such quotas.) Sociologist Douglas Massey suggests raising that number to 100,000, arguing that the current quota "for a nation to which we are so closely bound by history, geography and treaty is absurdly low, yielding excessively long waiting times for many legally qualified immigrants and virtually guaranteeing undocumented movement." Green-card holders may apply to become naturalized US citizens after five years.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act sets a quota of 675,000 permanent resident visas annually for newcomers to the US from the entire world, of which the 20,000 for Mexico are a part. These visas are currently allocated largely on the basis of family connections to those already in the US: 480,000 visas for the adult children and siblings of US citizens and the spouses and children of current green-card holders (there is no limit for spouses or minor children of US citizens). Another 140,000 visas are allocated based on employment to people who have skills the US needs, with the final 55,000 for a "diversity" lottery from low-immigration countries.

Some business observers believe that system is overbalanced toward family connections, hurting the US by depriving our economy of the best and the brightest from other nations who might want to work here. A recent Fortune magazine article noted, "If Albert Einstein wanted to move in today but had no US relatives, he'd have to get in line behind thousands of poorly educated manual laborers who did. In a global economic competition, that policy seems crazy." Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr suggests that every foreign student who earns a PhD at a US university should be handed a green card along with a diploma.

Currently, only 65,000 H-1B visas for high-tech and skilled workers are granted every year. By mid-August of this year, officials announced that they would no longer take H1-B applications for 2006, because all the slots had been filled. Businesses such as Microsoft chafe under these restrictions, but the number of H-1B visas has actually been cut in recent years, from 195,000, in a post-Sept. 11 security tightening.

Even if a person has a family member who is a citizen, the wait for a visa can be long. According to the National Council of La Raza, the wait to bring a minor unmarried child or spouse to the US from Mexico may be as long as seven years. To be reunited with unmarried children over 21 who live in Mexico, the wait can stretch to nine years.

For unskilled workers with no family here who hope to find opportunity in the US, the door is open only a tiny crack: About 5,000 such employment-based visas are available, not just for Mexico but for the entire world.

That northward flood has left an equally unprecedented toll in its wake, as would-be migrants cross the border in more remote and inhospitable areas: Since 1986, total border deaths have tripled. In the first 11 months of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the Border Patrol counted 415 people who died in border-crossing attempts, breaking the record of 383 set in 2000. Deaths in the Arizona sector of the border-up 57 percent-have forced the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office to use a refrigerator trailer as a temporary morgue to handle the overflow. In the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, deaths had reached 25 by mid-August, up from 18 last year.

Apprehensions in the El Paso sector were also up, to 106,000 in less than 11 months, compared with 104,000 for all last fiscal year. The 53-mile-long Deming Station portion of that sector had caught 31,134 migrants through July, compared with 29,168 for the entire previous fiscal year, and turned back to Mexico another 16,580 who spotted agents and changed their minds. The average for the Deming Station is about 175 apprehensions daily.

The irony that the Border Patrol is working harder even as border deaths and the number of unauthorized migrants also soar is lost on many who wade into the illegal-immigration debate. In fact, since 1986, even as the illegal population in the US has ballooned, the budget of the Border Patrol has increased by 10-fold and the number of hours spent on patrol has grown by a factor of eight. While border deaths have tripled, so has the number of Border Patrol officers. By 2002, according to a new study, "Backfire at the Border," authored for the libertarian Cato Institute by Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, "the Border Patrol was the largest arms-bearing branch of the US government next to the military itself."

So despite calls by the Minutemen and others to "beef up" border security, the truth is that's exactly what has happened-and it hasn't worked. Indeed, Massey's study strongly suggests that the buildup along the border has actually contributed to the problem.

Before Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, the Border Patrol was a relatively small agency with an annual budget of $151 million. The growth in funding begun in 1986 reached $740 million in 1993, when the agency launched Operation Blockade in El Paso, followed by Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, both massive border crackdowns. Another piece of legislation, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, led to the construction of two more layers of fencing in San Diego-at some $3 million per mile-and boosted Border Patrol staffing by 1,000 agents annually. By 2004, the Border Patrol boasted a budget of $3.8 billion. Its force of agents is approaching 11,000; 105 new agents arrived at the Deming Station alone in mid-September.

Prior to the crackdown in San Diego-Tijuana and El Paso-Juarez, according to the Mexican Migration Project (MMP) at Princeton University, these two small stretches of the border accounted for 70 percent of all illegal crossings. "Hardening" the border at these two points did not reduce the flow of unauthorized migrants; it simply redirected them to more remote areas-first in Arizona and now, as enforcement has tightened there, to the New Mexico border.

In late September, Robert Bonner, commissioner for US Customs and Border Protection, boasted that "we're making progress" along the Tucson portion of the border, which he'd called "the weakest part of our border with Mexico" only six months before. But Bonner conceded that even as the 110-mile Tucson stretch has tightened up, illegal traffic has increased in the 80-mile Yuma portion to the west and in the Deming stretch to the east. The Yuma sector is now the nation's busiest for migrant apprehensions.

"Cat chasing the mouse," is how the Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders in Tucson, describes the shift. "And pushing people to the Yuma sector is not desirable over pushing people to the Tiucson sector." Nor is pushing migrants towards Deming, New Mexicans might add.

The percentage of migrants crossing at these "untraditional" borders zoomed from 29 percent in 1988 to 64 percent in 2002. Half of all the 1.1 million apprehensions last year along the 5,000 miles of US border with Mexico and Canada were in Arizona.

Redirecting illegal immigration to this much longer, more remote and rugged stretch of border has led to a number of unintended consequences, according to Massey's Cato Institute study and a similar analysis by the National Council of La Raza. (Any argument that brings together a libertarian think tank and a liberal Hispanic activist organization should at least raise eyebrows.) Most tragically, as noted, more border crossers are dying in the attempt to navigate this risky and desolate terrain. Ironically, however, more border crossers are also succeeding, as the Arizona and New Mexico borders are far more difficult to patrol. According to a study by Thomas J. Espenshade, the likelihood of getting caught trying to cross the US-Mexican border was about 33 percent throughout the 1970s and 1980s. After Operations Blockade and Gatekeeper in 1993 and 1994, the risk of apprehension actually began to plunge. By 2002, the odds that someone trying to enter the US illegally from Mexico would be caught had reached a record low of five percent. "Rather than increasing the odds of apprehension," Massey writes, "US border policies have reduced them to record lows."

Remember, during this same period the Border Patrol's budget was exploding. The math is inevitable: The cost of apprehending one illegal border crosser soared from $100 in 1986 to $1,700 in 2002.

"People need to realize this is a zero-sum game when it comes to money," says Earl Montoya of the Southwest Hispanic Roundtable, at the Bayard meeting. "I don't want a disproportionate amount of money to be spent on this issue when there are other issues such as poverty that demand attention. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't."

"You've been reading my mail," Rep. Pearce cracks.

The escalating cost of apprehension is not a criticism of the Border Patrol, now tasked with an increasingly impossible mission, nor does it mean enforcement efforts have not made border crossing a greater challenge. Although border crossers have not been deterred, the difficulty and expense of the trek disinclines them to risk it very often. So, in yet another unintended consequence of stepped-up enforcement, unauthorized migrants are staying longer in the US instead of traveling back and forth. According to MMP data, prior to 1986, between 40 and 50 percent of border crossers returned to Mexico within 12 months. Since passage of the IRCA stiffened border enforcement and began to push crossing to more remote areas, that likelihood of return has dropped to about 25 percent. La Raza cites statistics showing the average stay of an undocumented migrant growing from two to three years in the early 1980s to nine years today. Again, you do the math: Adding longer stays to the increase in the flow of border crossers, no wonder the number of illegal aliens in the US has mushroomed.

A final unintended result of the border crackdown has been a booming business for the human smugglers known as "coyotes." The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that 90 percent of migrants now rely on a coyote. According to La Raza, "Because of the government's policy of increased enforcement along the US-Mexican border and the associated risks of crossing the border, many unauthorized immigrants cannot survive the trip alone and rely on professional smugglers. Since the increased border control of the 1990s, migrants are now paying tremendous sums to smugglers to assist them and their family members." La Raza reports that coyotes now charge $100-$500 for a simple border crossing, while bringing someone from the Mexican interior may cost $5,000. Massey puts the average coyote's fee at about $1,200, triple the rate from 1980 to 1992, when the cost of crossing stayed relatively flat at $400. Today's migrants may remain indebted to coyotes for years, working in the US in effect as indentured servants-and, again, causing them to extend the length of time they remain here illegally, in order to earn enough to repay the smuggler.

At least 20 coyote networks are reportedly active in the Juarez region alone, and the level of violence associated with human smuggling is beginning to resemble that of smuggling drugs. Massey figures that the coyote "industry" grosses more than $5 billion a year, approaching a significant fraction of Mexico's $20 billion narcotics trade. No wonder rivalries between coyote networks are being played out in gunfire and blood.

The rise of the coyotes-colloquially called polleros in Mexico-has also taken a toll in places like Palomas, just across the border from New Mexico. As reported in the August Desert Exposure ("On the Line"), Manuel Acosta of the Independent State Network of Human Rights claims the leading polleros in Palomas work in collusion with the police. Acosta says he has been threatened by both. He charges that, in exchange for weekly bribes from the local smugglers, Mexican police stop vans and buses belonging to rival polleros and make the border crossers pay $100 each. From the polleros they demand $300 or more, Acosta says.

Given this depressing litany of problems seemingly exacerbated by our very efforts to cure them, it's no surprise that people from congressmen to Minutemen are getting fed up. As Tamar Jacoby, author of Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to Be an American, observes in The New Republic, "People are right to be frustrated and angry with the border problem. Nobody can quarrel with the point that the system's broken." While it seemed there were more new stories about the Minutemen this spring than there were migrants apprehended, Jacoby adds, "they put the issue back in the news, that's for sure."

Jacoby likens the problem to Prohibition, and argues that our attempts to staunch the border flow are as doomed as that attempt to ban liquor. Prohibition, she writes, "was so out of sync with reality, so remote from human behavior and established economic patterns, that it had no hope of succeeding." Like Prohibition, "the failure to regulate our southern border has eroded the rule of law throughout the country."

Steve Pearce has a more homespun analogy this sunny summer morning in Bayard, as he attempts to respond to questions on his "Listening Tour": "We have a system that was pretty bad on its own 50 or 60 years ago," the congressman says. "Now the press of humanity trying to get here and get opportunity is overwhelming a system that was broken before. It's like the 1915 truck I bought to ride in parades, if you loaded it up with all the automotive technology of today."

James Baruch of Mimbres scowls beneath his white cowboy hat and gets up to speak. "I'm all for immigration-legal immigration," he says. "But illegal immigration should be just that. This is a nation of laws and we ought to enforce our laws. We're everywhere else in the world protecting everybody else's borders, while ours is Swiss cheese."

 

The New York Times doesn't often get to Columbus, NM, but when Gov. Bill Richardson declared a state of emergency along the border here on Aug. 12, the nation's newspaper of record sent a reporter to talk to James Johnson. The governor had cited the kidnapping of three migrants by bandits on Johnson's land in making his declaration for Grant, Luna, Hidalgo and Dona Ana counties, which Richardson described as "devastated by the ravages and terror of human smuggling, drug smuggling, kidnapping, murder, destruction of property and death of livestock." He pledged $1.75 million in emergency help for law enforcement. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano likewise declared a border emergency soon thereafter.

Johnson told the Times that as many as 500 migrants cross the border daily via his ranch, which his family has worked since 1918. Sheila Massey in Animas recounted how she and her husband were awakened at 2 a.m. by migrants breaking into their ranch house: "One said he was looking for work. I said you don't look for work at 2 in the morning. What we've lost is our sense of security." In another article, in the Albuquerque Journal, Rodeo-area rancher Richard Winkler said his house has been broken into nine times since the first of the year.

In this remote corner of New Mexico, ranchers and farmers can't even call to report sightings of illegal immigrants-cell phones don't always work. Officials have begun giving residents two-way, police-style radios, paid for with $200,000 in federal funds.

But local law-enforcement officials are feeling the pressure, too. On Aug. 9, two shots were fired at Columbus Police Chief Clare A. May when he was inspecting a suspected smuggler's car. And Rep. Pearce says, "I've heard of police in Lordsburg who've quit to take jobs in Las Cruces because it's safer." Maybe not-smuggling-related crime is soaring as far from the border as Phoenix, where murders are up 45 percent this year.

The flow of migrants also overwhelms border hospitals, whose emergency rooms fill with patients who can't pay. In Bisbee, near the Arizona border, Copper Queen Community Hospital is seeing twice as many emergency-room visits as in former years. Last year its shortfall from treating illegal aliens hit $450,000.

Then there's simply the problem of trash and other detritus left by border crossers. Laura Levesque of Deming tells of a man driving up to her consignment store with a Jeep full of freshly laundered backpacks: "I was out rockhounding and found these instead," he said. Levesque continues, "He went on to tell me he stumbled onto piles of clothing, some like new, jackets, jeans, men's clothes, women's clothes, kids' clothes, make-up, mirrors (for signaling?), high heels, toothbrushes, toothpaste, sleeping bags, water jugs, used and unused phone cards, medical records, plane tickets, water bottles, canned food and unmentionables-'acres of this stuff.'"

Less appealingly, Time magazine wrote of migrants who "turn the land into a vast latrine, leaving behind revolting mounds of personal refuse and enough discarded plastic bags to stock a Wal-Mart."

A short-term infusion of local law-enforcement personnel, funded by Richardson's emergency declaration, might help control some of these side effects of illegal border crossing. But no one thinks that's a solution to the underlying problem.

Some folks believe the only answer is to call in the military. At Pearce's meeting, Bill Frazier says, "It scares me to see hundreds of illegals coming across the border every day. Some are good people, but there are also a lot of evildoers and troublemakers. We've got military units scattered all over the world, in places they shouldn't be. It's time to put the border in the charge of people who are on our payroll anyway-organized military units."

In fact, George Rep. Charlie Norwood, another ardent immigration foe, interprets Massey's Cato study exactly the opposite of what the author intended: If the Border Patrol buildup isn't working, Norwood argues, the only answer is more force-deploying 50,000 US troops along the Mexican border. At what cost? According to data from the National Guard Bureau cited by Norwood, a similar deployment of 36,000 state troops would cost $2.5 billion a year. "Dr. Massey has pointed out with jarring candor the real agenda of the 'open borders' movement-the destruction of the United States as an independent nation," says Norwood. "We can fight and win this war right now without a shot being fired through a relatively minor deployment of state and federal forces."

Steve Pearce begs to differ with his GOP colleague, however. "First, there's a constitutional problem," he points out. "Moreover, is that the kind of border we want? I remember seeing people with machine guns standing outside banks when I visited Nicaragua. I worry when we begin to militarize our homes down here."

Until the military does take on the job of securing the border, like it or not, we've got the Minutemen.

Continue to Part Two.

 

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