SAN DIEGO — U.S. authorities have been surprised at the number of illegal immigrants willing to risk their lives to skirt agents in Southwest cities but expect to reduce crossings through the perilous rural zones within five years, the nation's chief immigration official said Wednesday.
Doris Meissner, commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said architects of a nationwide border crackdown, launched in California in 1994, expected that hostile terrain and deadly weather conditions in remote mountains and deserts along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico frontier would act as a greater deterrent to illegal crossings than has been the case.
"We knew there would be . . . changes in smuggling patterns. But it has been surprising to see how quickly that's happened and in the numbers that it's happened," Meissner said.
She was in town to attend the opening of special commuter lanes today at the port of entry in San Ysidro. Meissner, appointed by President Clinton in 1993, is expected to leave her post when a new president takes over in January.
She has overseen a dramatic increase in the number of Border Patrol agents assigned to stem illegal crossings--and the political anger they generated--in once-chaotic spots such as San Diego.
Even critics concede that the strategy, whose California leg was called Operation Gatekeeper, has brought relative quiet to neighborhoods that once endured crime and turmoil from the passing parade of illegal entrants, many of whom were raped and robbed or struck by cars while running across the freeway.
"The California border is an entirely different place than it was when we started. When we started there was chaos here. There was danger," Meissner said. "Now we have demonstrated that borders can be managed."
But critics say that calm is illusory--migrants have simply opted for back-country routes whose fierce conditions have killed hundreds of them since 1994. Some see the chief benefit as a political one: No longer is the illegal immigration issue a cudgel for Republicans to wield.
"The Clinton administration has entered into a dubious moral arithmetic--how many migrant lives are we prepared to lose to keep the problem out of the national spotlight?" said Michael Huspek, an associate professor of communications at Cal State San Marcos who studies border issues and is writing a book about Operation Gatekeeper.
Meissner conceded that the rising migrant death toll--totaling 340 nationwide since October--has suddenly forced border agents to add lifesaving to their list of duties. Increased crossings in some rural areas of Arizona have spurred ranchers at times to detain migrants traversing their properties.
"The geography itself in these very tough places in the mountains and desert should be a deterrent in and of itself," Meissner said. "But what's happened is that there have been shifts in the patterns of behavior, largely by the smugglers, and we've had to be far more explicit and focused in protecting the migrants from that exploitation than we expected."
She said it would take at most five years to add agents and anti-smuggling devices, such as cameras, to assert "a reasonable level of control" in now-busy rural border areas.
Meissner said she believes that fewer people are crossing illegally since the crackdown, despite figures showing a rising number of arrests of undocumented crossers nationwide. She said the increased arrests could mean agents are catching a higher percentage of undocumented migrants than before, but conceded that remains to be proved.