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Border Arrests Rose Sharply Over Holidays


SAN DIEGO — The number of illegal immigrants apprehended since October by the U.S. Border Patrol in the San Diego area--the nation's primary gateway for illegal immigration--rose 13% from the previous year, Border Patrol officials said Tuesday.

The 147,332 apprehensions from Oct. 1 to Monday of this week were the highest since 1986 for the period including the Christmas holidays. These months are traditionally the slowest of the year for attempted clandestine crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration statistics are a perennial point of contention. It was not surprising that federal immigration officials and immigrant advocates disagreed Tuesday on the significance of the new figures for the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, which accounts for 48% of apprehensions nationwide.

The Border Patrol said the flow of people across the border is increasing steadily, despite a U.S. economic slump that has severely reduced jobs for illegal immigrants and legal residents alike. Post-holiday activity at the border has picked up more rapidly than usual, according to Border Patrol spokesman Steve Kean.

"It looks like apprehensions are really on a climb this year," Kean said. "It appears that the recession is worldwide. It appears that the same push-pull factors between Mexico and the U.S. exist."

But immigrant advocates say the apprehension statistics do not necessarily mean that a significantly larger number of illegal immigrants crossed the border. They attributed the rise in part to aggressive enforcement during the past year, as witnessed in installation of a new fence at the border that has aided Border Patrol agents and in repeat apprehensions of the same immigrants.

"Bandying about these kinds of figures gives the impression that we are somehow being overrun," said Claudia Smith of California Rural Legal Assistance, or CLRA, a legal aid group. "It gives the impression that the increase is massive. . . . We challenge the numbers."

Jorge Bustamante, dean of the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana, said the college's studies of northbound immigrants on the Mexican side of the border do not suggest a significant increase in illegal immigration for late 1991 over 1990. Apprehension statistics are an unreliable barometer because U.S. officials do not take into account the number of individual who are arrested many times, Bustamante said.

"The Border Patrol and the INS insist on using distorted data because arrest statistics are discussed as if they applied to different individuals, when they actually apply to different events," he said.

The slumping U.S. economy has made it harder even for legal immigrants such as farm workers and day laborers to survive, said the CLRA's Smith.

"Work is very hard even for documented immigrants to get," Smith said. "That's the most common refrain we are getting from our clients."

Clients also say that the Border Patrol has been catching more people in the canyons and neighborhoods north of the border because of new lighting and a 7-mile border fence installed over the past two years, Smith said.

Although Kean acknowledged that those have had an impact, he said they are not the only reason for the increase. As to the issue of repeat apprehensions, Kean said a Border Patrol survey of 53,000 illegal immigrants in a six-week period in 1988 showed that only 21% of those studied had been caught more than once.

The figures released Tuesday continue a steady increase of the past two years after several years of declining apprehensions that followed the record-setting 1986 fiscal year, when 629,656 people were arrested in the San Diego area. There were 540,347 arrests during the last fiscal year.

Border Patrol staffing levels in the sector remained almost constant during that period, at just below 800 agents, Kean said.

Another statistic shows the dramatic growth in use of a dangerous route by illegal immigrants at the border and around the Border Patrol checkpoint near San Clemente: Kean said the number of suspected illegal immigrants spotted crossing Interstate 5, where three people were killed last week as they attempted to dash across the freeway, has increased during the past year, from 162 to 250 each day.

The Border Patrol does a daily count of suspected illegal immigrants seen crossing or walking on the freeway.

Immigration on the Rise

Apprehensions of illegal immigrants by the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol in the fourth quarter of the last six years:

Period: Oct. 1 thru Jan. 20 1991-92: 147,332 1990-91: 130,351 Period: Oct. 1 thru Dec. 31 1989: 101,475 1988: 88,940 1987: 62,133 1986: 76,543 1985: 106,974 NOTE: Only fourth-quarter figures were available for 1989 and previous years.

Source: U.S. Border Patrol

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