Arrests of illegal aliens along the Mexican border in San Diego County reached near-record numbers in January, a development that one federal official here called alarming in view of the border-wide decline in apprehensions last year after passage of the new immigration law.
However, other immigration posts along the border--from El Centro in California to McAllen in southern Texas--reported decreased numbers of arrests in January, indicating that any apparent surge in attempted illegal entries may be limited to San Diego.
The San Diego region is considered the single busiest crossing for illegal aliens along the 1,900-mile border, accounting for more than one-third of all those arrested. The arrest numbers, compiled by the U.S. Border Patrol, are considered the best barometer of illegal entry into the United States, though the numbers can fluctuate considerably based on patrol staffing, weather and other factors.
53,711 Arrested in January
In the first month of 1988, Border Patrol officials here reported 53,711 arrests of illegal aliens--a 13% increase compared with the 47,497 apprehensions in January, 1987. The numbers last month almost matched the record 53,866 arrests made in January, 1986. (The figures include every single arrest, meaning aliens who are apprehended more than once are counted each time they are picked up.)
"It's alarming to us, but one month doesn't make a trend," said William Veal, deputy chief Border Patrol agent in San Diego.
Veal said the increase indicates that the worsening economic situation in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America is continuing to propel migrants toward the United States--despite the provisions in immigration law seeking to retard that movement.
"To us, it's a signal of the desperation of the people in other countries, and their strong desire to come to the United States," Veal said.
Normally a Slow Month
In fact, January is normally a slow month for illegal entries because many migrants have returned home for the holidays and won't attempt the trip north for a few weeks. However, on a recent Saturday evening as many as 800 aliens massed in a well-known border canyon here, waiting for nightfall to attempt illegal crossings into the United States. A sample interviewed said they had heard of the new immigration law, but were largely unaware of its contents.
"I hope to find some work in Los Angeles," said Filiberto Arceo, a 40-year-old father of eight from the Mexican interior state of Zacatecas. He was attempting to cross with his 15-year-old son. "The work in Mexico doesn't pay," he added, a comment repeated by other immigrants.
Another troubling development, Veal said, was the January arrests of 1,045 non-Mexicans, almost double the number arrested during the same period last year. Most were Central Americans, but others included South Koreans, Chinese, Yugoslavians or South Americans.
The increase in the number of non-Mexicans may indicate that word is spreading to Central America and elsewhere that some U.S. employers continue to seek illegal workers, and that reports of mass deportations from the United States are untrue. "They've heard that some people are finding jobs," Veal said.
156 Stolen Vehicles Impounded
In a related statistic, border officers in January reported that they seized 156 stolen vehicles used in smuggling--surpassing the former one-month record of 143.
Last year, arrests of illegal aliens in San Diego and elsewhere along the entire border dropped by almost one-third. U.S. authorities attributed the decline in part to the new immigration law, which, among other things, makes it illegal for U.S. employers to knowingly hire undocumented workers.
Agricultural concerns, however, a major user of illegal labor, are largely exempt from the new sanctions until December. Western growers lobbied hard for the extension.
Elsewhere along the border, U.S. authorities generally reported declining arrests of illegal aliens in January. Border Patrol authorities said arrests by agents based in El Paso, Tex., dropped 24% compared with the same period last year, and in McAllen, Tex., the drop was 13%. El Centro arrests were down 3%.
There was no immediate explanation as to why San Diego is different from other border areas, but last year's much-publicized declines in border arrests here were generally not as sharp as those experienced elsewhere. In the past, immigration experts have noted that San Diego is the gateway to the relatively prosperous job markets of California, while formerly booming areas of Texas have been experiencing severe economic downturns.