WASHINGTON — Declaring the nation's busiest corridor for illegal entry virtually under control, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner on Tuesday announced the deployment of 1,000 new Border Patrol agents--not one of them headed to San Diego.
Citing the drop in border apprehensions by more than 40% to 284,000 in the area last year, and the doubling of agents to 2,244 since 1993, officials signaled a major strategy shift by sending two-thirds of the new personnel to Texas and New Mexico, adding just 134 in California.
"We believe that the San Diego sector in California has reached a level of control," Meissner said. "We don't see a need for increased personnel in San Diego."
But while Texas politicians celebrated the influx, some Californians disputed Meissner's assessment and worried that immigrants deterred by the beefed-up patrols in San Diego are simply heading east to the vast, rugged terrain of Imperial County--and then up to Interstate 5 and points north.
"Nobody in their right mind can . . . say this is under control with a straight face," said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego). "The shifting of more resources into Texas or someplace else is understandable, but to try and say the San Diego sector is under control is a gross overstatement. . . . The job is not done in California."
With 670 more agents heading to Texas and New Mexico, and 196 to Arizona, the squeeze on California's El Centro sector--which covers 26,000 square miles in the state's southeast corner--will now come from both sides.
"It basically pushes alien traffic somewhere else--we are the somewhere else," said El Centro Border Patrol Chief Thomas Wacker, who has seen the daily apprehensions on his turf surge from 150 when he arrived 2 1/2 years ago to 911 this month.
"Obviously, San Diego was the place to go for many, many years. They've basically shut that off," Wacker said. "The smugglers . . . have chosen the path of least resistance. For now, that's the Imperial Valley."
California's border is divided into two INS sectors: San Diego's stretches from the ocean to Otay Mesa; and El Centro, by far the larger of the two, covers the rest, including the Calexico-Mexicali corridor.
Indeed, as San Diego's apprehensions have dropped from 531,689 in 1993 to 483,815 in 1996 and to last year's 17-year low under the Clinton administration's Operation Gatekeeper, neighboring El Centro has seen its arrests nearly quintuple. In 1993, agents stopped 30,058 illegal crossers in the mountains and deserts of the eastern region; last year they apprehended 146,210.
If the current daily rate stayed steady all year, that record high would more than double. (In San Diego, officials project fewer than 200,000 apprehensions.)
Before the launch of Operation Gatekeeper, which targeted San Diego because fully 25% of the nation's illegal crossings came through its narrow 14-mile border strip, El Centro ranked seventh in overall arrests among INS' 10 regions. Now, it's third.
"The smugglers are smart, they're not dumb," said San Diego County Sheriff's Department spokesman Ron Reina. "They've gone out east into the rural areas."
El Centro's force has grown from 194 in 1993 to 243 today, and will have 377 agents with the new deployment. But it will still have fewer people than all but two Southwest INS regions--Yuma, Ariz., and Marfa, Texas.
"We should have the entire perimeter being buttressed instead of one area at a time," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), who represents eastern San Diego and Imperial counties. Hunter says the nation needs 20,000 Border Patrol agents instead of the current 7,800, and triple fences like the one under construction in San Diego built in each of 12 urban corridors on the Mexican border.
Meissner defended the new deployment as an important next phase in a five-year plan that targeted San Diego first. California has far more agents per mile than Texas, with its 1,200-mile Mexican border. Texas would probably get another batch if Congress approves Clinton's budget request for an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents next year, Meissner said; San Diego would still probably get zero, though El Centro would get some.
"If we can get control of our borders and have the territorial sovereignty that is solid, we will not have the crime in the rest of the country," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), who stood by Meissner's side at Tuesday's news conference. "This is a win for everyone. We can truly say help is on the way."
INS officials noted that the jump of more than 100,000 apprehensions in El Centro last year was less than the 200,000 drop in San Diego. El Centro's increase, however, was bigger than in any sector in Texas or Arizona--indeed, four of the seven sectors had fewer apprehensions in 1997 than in the previous year.
"We will watch the shifts in traffic," Meissner said. "We'll be watching the entire border."