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Illegal Alien Arrests at Mexico Border Plunge

May 08, 1987|PATRICK McDONNELL | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Arrests of illegal aliens throughout the U.S.-Mexico border region declined at a sharp pace last month, bolstering a widespread perception that the new immigration law has resulted in fewer would-be immigrants attempting to enter the United States unlawfully.

In the San Diego area, which usually accounts for more than one-third of all illegal aliens arrested along the border, the U.S. Border Patrol recorded 34,962 arrests of illegal aliens in Aprila drop of 51% compared to the record 71,908 arrests in April, 1986. Moreover, the figures for April, 1987, represented the fewest illegal aliens arrested here in an April--a traditionally busy month because of the presence of seasonal spring employment in fields and elsewhere--since April, 1982.

El Paso Arrests

In El Paso, Tex., the second-busiest illegal border crossing after San Diego, Border Patrol arrests of illegal aliens declined by 35% last month compared to April, 1987. And in McAllen, Tex., where the Border Patrol monitors 280 miles of the Rio Grande, apprehensions declined by 60% in April, 1987, compared to the same period last year.

Along the 1,952-mile border, which stretches from the Gulf of Mexico in Texas to the Pacific Ocean in California, arrests of illegal aliens declined by 21% during the first six months of fiscal 1987, which began last Oct. 1.

Would-be illegal aliens interviewed this week in Tijuana said word of the new law--and rumors of a shrinking job pool and mass deportations--have dissuaded many of their countrymen from making the trek north.

"Half of the men from our pueblo stayed home this year," said Jesus Mendoza Alvarez, 38, one of 11 men from a small village in the Mexican interior state of Jalisco who were hoping to cross into the United States and find field work near Fresno.

U.S. authorities acknowledge that various factors--such as record high waters along the Rio Grande, a severe winter in some border areas and the economic downturn in Texas--may have influenced the decline in arrests, but they attribute at least part of the drop to the new Immigration Control and Reform Act. The law has made its mark in several ways, officials say, notably by spreading the perception among would-be immigrants that jobs are now harder to find in the United States because of sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens after Nov. 6, 1986, the date the statute was signed into law.

"There's a belief in Mexico . . . that jobs are no longer available in the United States," said Silvestre Reyes, chief Border Patrol agent in McAllen, in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. "That's not really the case, but there is that belief."

In fact, legal sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens are not even being enforced until June 1; first-time violators will only be given citations during the first year of enforcement.

Nonetheless, migrants, smugglers and others interviewed at one of Tijuana's principal staging areas for illegal aliens this week acknowledged that illicit crossings are on the decline. As the sun went down on a recent evening in a border area known as Canyon Zapata in Tijuana and as the "soccer field" here, there were perhaps 250 people waiting for nightfall to cross into the United States, compared to springtime crowds of up to 700 or more in recent years. Business was slack at the many stalls selling food, clothing and other items near a smoldering dump and Dead Man's Canyon, a gully named for the occasional discoveries of bodies.

Jesus Mendoza Alvarez, and his colleagues said they had traveled more than 1,400 miles by bus to arrive in Tijuana and an opportunity for work in the United States. Most had been here before; Mendoza boasted that he had crossed 11 times. On three previous attempts to cross the border this week, the group had been arrested by the Border Patrol in San Diego and returned to Mexico. Standing on a dirt track in the rugged canyon, they said they were determined to try again this night. As they had frequently returned to Mexico, none would legally qualify for the new amnesty provisions.

"Everyone's heard about the new law," said Mendoza, a father of five who carried a small red gym bag containing most of his belongings, "but we decided to come and see for ourselves. We only want to work to get enough money to feed our families. "

Lack of Knowledge

Mendoza and other illegal workers appeared to have little accurate knowledge about the new immigration law. "They don't know many facts; all they know is that it could affect their chances to find a job," said Eduardo Lopez Ramirez, a researcher for the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City who was in Tijuana investigating the effects of the new law. "Many are very scared."

From the migrants' comments, it was clear that word of the statute has spread to the villages and cities of Mexico that have traditionally fed illegal immigration.

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