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Border Patrol Arrests Rise; Critics Dispute Significance


SAN DIEGO — The number of illegal immigrants caught since October along the 14-mile San Diego border sector--the nation's gateway for illegal immigration--rose 13% over a year ago, Border Patrol officials said Tuesday.

The figure--147,332--was the highest since 1986 for the holiday period, a traditionally slow time for clandestine border crossings.

Immigration statistics are a perennial point of contention, so it was not surprising that federal immigration officials and immigrant-rights advocates disagreed Tuesday on what the numbers mean for the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, which accounts for 48% of apprehensions nationwide.

The Border Patrol blamed economic recession in both countries for an increasing flow across the border, despite a U.S. slump that has wiped out jobs for immigrants and non-immigrants alike.

"It looks like apprehensions are really on a climb this year," said Border Patrol spokesman Steve Kean. "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 numbers do not necessarily mean that significantly more illegal immigrants crossed the border. They attribute the rise in part to aggressive enforcement measures, including new lighting and a new seven-mile border fence, and to repeat apprehensions--stopping the same person on several attempts.

"Bandying about these kinds of figures gives the impression that we are somehow being overrun," said Claudia Smith of California Rural Legal Assistance, 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 ongoing studies of northward-bound immigrants do not suggest a significant increase in illegal immigration over 1990. Statistics are an unreliable barometer because U.S. officials do not take into account the number of people who are arrested numerous times, Bustamante said.

The slumping U.S. economy has made it harder even for legal immigrants such as farm workers and day laborers to survive, said Smith. "Work is very hard even for documented immigrants to get," she said.

While Kean acknowledged that new enforcement measures have had an effect, he said they are not the only reason for the increase. As to repeat figures, Kean said a Border Patrol survey of 53,000 illegal immigrants caught in a six-week period in 1988 showed that only 21% had been stopped more than once.

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