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California and the West

Arrests of Illegal Migrants Plunge

Mexico: The 24% decrease is the first to occur in all sectors of the border since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994, but experts say many factors may be involved.


SAN DIEGO — Arrests of illegal immigrants have fallen along every segment of the U.S.-Mexico border during the last six months--apparently a sign that fewer people are trying to enter the country illegally, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The 24% drop during the first half of the federal fiscal year is the first to occur across the entire border since the United States began cracking down on illegal entries in earnest with the launch of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994.

The development comes amid a push on both sides of the border to allow more immigrants into the United States legally through some type of guest worker program. U.S. and Mexican officials gather in Washington today to begin high-level talks on immigration.

Although it may be too soon to know whether the arrest numbers reflect a shift in immigration patterns, many hypotheses have emerged to explain the reduction in arrests so far this year.

Some analysts say tighter border enforcement has discouraged would-be immigrants from heading north and has persuaded many already living in the United States to stay put. Others cite job growth in Mexico and optimism over political changes there, a slowing in the U.S. economy, and even bad winter weather along some stretches of the border. Still others say immigrants may have remained in the United States in the belief that they can gain legal status through a recent change in U.S. immigration law.

"It's not one thing. It's a variety of things," said Renee J. Harris, associate chief of the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington.

Arrests by Border Patrol agents across the Southwest fell to 653,140, from 856,228 for the same period a year earlier, according to preliminary Immigration and Naturalization Service tallies through March 31--the halfway point in the federal fiscal year, which runs from October to September. Although many scholars view border arrest rates as having limited value in measuring illegal immigration, the figures are closely watched by federal policymakers as a rough gauge of how many people cross.

Officials said that more significant than the size of the drop was its breadth. In a departure from previous years, when reductions in certain spots were accompanied by jumps in others, each portion of the 2,000-mile border saw fewer arrests this time.

The biggest drops were seen in Texas, where arrests fell in some spots by nearly a third, and in San Diego, where apprehensions have been tapering off for five years. Arrests also fell around Tucson, still the busiest spot for illegal crossings.

Officials and some outside analysts say the U.S. effort to stop illegal entries by adding border agents and building fences is at last working as planners envisioned.

"We knew that our strategy was going to have an impact. But as to when, we didn't know," Harris said.

The push, begun in El Paso in 1993, was made a priority of the Clinton administration with the introduction of Operation Gatekeeper in California a year later. The complement of agents in San Diego more than doubled almost overnight, and fences, lights and ground sensors were installed. Arrests plummeted. A similar strategy was put in place in Imperial County and Arizona as immigrant smugglers sought easier routes. After seeing arrests soar, those spots have lately watched them decline.

"It's like trying to stop speeding on the highway," said Philip Martin, an immigration expert at UC Davis. "What you wind up doing by putting more police out there is catching more speeders. But at some point, there probably is this tipping point where people realize they're going to get caught and it does change behavior."

INS officials say efforts by the governments of the U.S. and Mexico to warn migrants about the potentially deadly risks of traversing remote areas also are paying off.

But they concede that other factors are at work. Several analysts suggested a "Fox effect": Mexicans are staying home in hopes that economic prospects will improve under the new president, Vicente Fox. Fox took office in December, vowing reforms, more jobs and better wages, after ending the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in a milestone election.

Many Mexicans are counting on Fox to forge an agreement with the United States to allow more immigrants to come north to work. Speculative and often inaccurate talk about a possible amnesty has circulated among immigrants from Mexico and Central America who live in the United States without residency papers. Rumors picked up steam after the U.S. Congress passed an arcane law in December making it easier for certain narrow categories of illegal immigrants to gain legal status.

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