Slowing the Flow
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TED ROBBINS: The border between the United States and Mexico stretches 2,000 miles. At Douglas, Arizona, it bristles with surveillance equipment. Lights, cameras, but much less action than there has been for border patrol agents like Justin Bristow.
JUSTIN BRISTOW: A year ago when you came to work or whenever you went to the station, the processing area was full. And now, I mean, we have hours at a time where there won’t be anyone in the processing area.
TED ROBBINS: This is the Douglas processing area a year ago March, illegal immigrants lined up waiting to be sent back to Mexico. The same place today is quiet; just a few people sit and wait. All along the U.S.-Mexican border, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended this year has dropped by nearly 25%. It’s the first such drop since the government began seriously cracking down on illegal entries in 1994.
The Border Patrol says the slowdown in arrests is evidence that fewer people are trying to cross illegally. Juan Rivera agrees. He runs a hotel in Agua Prieta, Mexico, just a few blocks south of the border. Most of his guests are immigrants on their way to the U.S. (Speaking Spanish) “The number of guests, they’ve decreased considerably,” he says. “I don’t think it, I know it. I’ve seen it. It’s gone maybe 20 to 30%.”
Nearly everyone agrees it’s become more difficult to cross since the Border Patrol began a massive buildup here. More than 600 agents are now stationed in Douglas. That’s double the number of agents here just two years ago. New fencing runs for miles away from the city. Vehicles guard almost every possible entry point. Movable towers help agents see into Mexico aided by night lights as well as day and night cameras.
JUSTIN BRISTOW: The word is getting out and people are understanding that it’s becoming harder to cross here. They can see it just as they… While they’re in Mexico.
TED ROBBINS: It’s also becoming more dangerous to cross. The buildup in and around towns like Douglas has pushed border crossers into the surrounding desert. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 369 immigrants died last year while trying to cross the border– almost half of them from exposure to heat or cold. 14 people died in one day along this stretch of desert near Yuma in May, despite signs in Spanish warning them of the danger. Attorney General John Ashcroft recently toured the area partly on motorcycle. He praised the Border Patrol’s success while at the same time announcing an additional 500 agents and $95 million in spending.
JOHN ASHCROFT: And I believe that the entire strategy is going to result in a safer border, a more orderly border, and obviously that continues to provide us with a basis for America welcoming more people than any other nation in the earth in terms… All other nations on the earth in terms of immigrants.
TED ROBBINS: But immigration experts say the border buildup is really only one of several reasons for the slowdown in crossing. Another reason: Mexicans who believe the election of President Vincente Fox last year will mean new economic opportunities at home and an easing of tension at the border.
ADELA DE LA TORRE: I think there’s a real euphoria because business is changing.
TED ROBBINS: Adela de la Torre is director of the Mexican-American Studies Center at the University of Arizona.
ADELA DE LA TORRE: I mean, there’s still issues, but there is a sense that he’s trying to move, negotiate, mediate, in a way that hadn’t occurred in the past.
TED ROBBINS: So there’s no doubt in your mind that political and economic changes in Mexico are at least partly responsible for the downturn in undocumented crossings?
ADELA DE LA TORRE: Right. I would say without a doubt that’s going to be a major factor.
TED ROBBINS: Hotel manager Juan Rivera says it seems like there’s been an injection of trust with the change that’s happened. “We haven’t seen tangibles,” he says, “but there are possibilities. I believe some good things can happen.” By contrast, the economic slowdown and consequent rise in unemployment in the U.S. may be reducing the number of immigrants.
Construction, agriculture, and service industries are among those most dependent on immigrant labor. Another possible reason border crossings are down, Mexicans already in the U.S. are staying put. Several hundred people, many of them in the U.S. illegally, packed into a meeting room recently at St. John’s Church in Tucson. They wanted to know about recent changes in the law from immigration attorney Valerie Hink.
VALERIE HINK: Right now, if you think you might be eligible, you should gather your documents, your papers.
TED ROBBINS: They used to move between the two countries seasonably for work. But because crossing is now more difficult, many of them are no longer going back and forth. Isabel Garcia is an immigration attorney and human rights activist. She is critical of U.S. border policy.
ISABEL GARCIA: Yes, we think that our buildup at the border has really caused a lot of people not to return to see their families. We think it’s created, of course, family hardships. But in view of their potentially losing their job, not being able to come back to their job, people have made that sacrifice not to go back.
VALERIE HINK: Stay inside the United States for now.
TED ROBBINS: People wanting legal visas to come to the U.S. normally have to apply at the U.S. Consulate in their own country, but many of these people took advantage of a recent temporary change in immigration law that allowed them to apply here. That meant not going back to Mexico. Instead, they now face a long wait in the U.S. until their legal status is granted.
VIRGINIA KICE: For certain preference categories from some countries, the wait could be perhaps as long as ten years. I mean, it’s considerable.
TED ROBBINS: For Mexico?
VIRGINIA KICE: Mexico, the Philippines, countries that have significant numbers of people seeking to immigrate, the wait is longer.
TED ROBBINS: Eduardo Ponce says he can’t afford to wait ten years for a visa. He’s about to cross illegally into the U.S. Every spring he says he travels north more than 1,500 miles from his home in Mexico to work in Colorado as a carpenter. In the fall, he heads South again with his earnings. He says he does not want to stay in the U.S.
EDUARDO PONCE : (Translated) Where I live there are a lot of people who come north for six months and go back. And because we come here to work, why don’t they just let us come in easily? Why don’t they just let us in to work and nothing more?
ADELA DE LA TORRE: I think we sometimes think of undocked and migration in the U.S. Here as people come and stay. These are people who aren’t going to stay.
TED ROBBINS: Which is why both the U.S. and Mexican governments are exploring the possibility of a guest worker program. Workers would be allowed to freely come and go but would not be allowed to stay. The idea is picking up political steam. Even long-time immigration opponents in Congress say they now favor some sort of guest worker program. Arizona Governor Jane Hull also favors a guest worker program. She says she’d be happy to have the federal government begin it in her state.
GOV. JANE HULL: I just would like to see the possibility of having Hispanic workers come into Arizona, work, and be able to go home to their families without the conflicts that they’re having on the border and not only Arizona but Nebraska and South Carolina and every state in the union. I just think it’s important that you don’t have to leave your home to make money but rather that you get to come here to work and then go home.
TED ROBBINS: Many human rights activists oppose the idea, though, because previous guest worker programs led to abuse on both sides of the border. Workers in the Bracero program, which ran from the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s, suffered cruel conditions, and some did not receive money they earned.
ISABEL GARCIA: U.S. workers, we don’t get enough enforcement, so how could we get enough enforcement power to make sure that they’re not violating labor laws on undocumented workers?
TED ROBBINS: Others think with oversight, a guest worker program can be successful.
ADELA DE LA TORRE: It isn’t 1942 or 1965. We’re at a very different level both politically, economically, and technologically to really monitor a program like this.
VIRGINIA KICE: I think there will still be a need for some type of enforcement in the work site, because again, the one thing we absolutely do not want to see happen is an increase in victimization and exploitation.
TED ROBBINS: A guest worker program would provide a final, dramatic reason for a downturn in illegal immigration and eliminate the need to forcibly return people to Mexico. With a change in the law, it would make tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of illegal crossings legal.