SAN DIEGO — Arrests of illegal aliens along the U.S.-Mexico 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 arrests last year after passage of the new immigration law.
However, other immigration posts along the border--from El Centro in California to McAllen in 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 area, which borders on Tijuana, is considered the busiest crossing region for illegal aliens along the 1,952-mile border, accounting for more than one-third of all those arrested along the entire border. The arrest numbers, compiled by the U.S. Border Patrol, are considered the best barometer of illegal entry into the United States, although the numbers can fluctuate considerably according to patrol staffing, weather and other factors.
In the first month of 1988, Border Patrol officials here reported 53,711 arrests of illegal aliens--a 13% increase over the 47,497 arrests in January, 1987. The numbers last month almost matched the record 53,866 arrests in January, 1986. The figures include every single arrest, meaning that aliens who are caught 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.
Rather, Veal said, the increase indicated 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.
Another troubling development, Veal said, was the fact that the 1,045 non-Mexicans arrested in January almost doubled the number arrested during the same period last year. Most were Central Americans, although South Koreans, Chinese, Yugoslavs and citizens of various South American nations were also among the non-Mexican nationals caught by the Border Patrol.
Word Getting Out
The increase in the number of non-Mexican migrants 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.
Last year, arrests of illegal aliens in San Diego and elsewhere along the border dropped by almost a 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 illegals.
Nonetheless, agricultural interests, which are a major user of illegal labor, are largely exempt from the new legal sanctions until next December. Western growers lobbied hard for the extension.
Elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. authorities generally reported declining arrests of illegal aliens in January. Border Patrol authorities said arrests by agents based in El Paso dropped by 24% from the same period last year; in McAllen, Tex., the drop was 13%, and in El Centro arrests were down by 3%.