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California and the West

U.S. Halts Most Border Car Seizures

Immigration: The INS had targeted vehicles used to smuggle migrants, but new law imposes tighter restrictions.

April 19, 2001|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — In a quiet but dramatic reversal, U.S. border inspectors are no longer confiscating thousands of cars used to sneak undocumented immigrants into the country.

The move away from the controversial practice comes in response to a U.S. law that makes it harder to justify seizures when no criminal charges are filed. The law, which took effect last August, also made it easier for motorists to challenge seizures and required the U.S. government to pay the legal bills of successful appellants.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said the prospect of a tidal wave of court challenges and associated legal costs prompted them to direct inspectors to give the keys back to motorists in all but the most grave cases of immigrant smuggling, such as those in which migrants' lives are jeopardized or when repeat offenders are involved.

The change also reflects a shift in attitude. Immigration officials say they have come to view car seizures--once a daily staple of border enforcement--as having questionable value in fighting smugglers. Many cars in which undocumented migrants are ferried are junkers worth only a few hundred dollars--no serious loss to smuggling syndicates, officials said.

"I don't think it reduced smuggling significantly," said Adele J. Fasano, INS district director in San Diego.

The INS traditionally seized more vehicles than any federal law enforcement agency--and no place saw more cars taken than the port of entry at San Ysidro. The new law was expected to result in fewer seizures by federal law enforcement agencies nationwide, but the drop at the border has been steeper than anyone imagined.

Since last fall, the number of cars confiscated by the INS at the six border crossings in California has tumbled from about 1,000 a month to fewer than 60--a trend roughly mirrored at ports of entry across the U.S.-Mexico border. In between official crossings, U.S. Border Patrol agents in San Diego used to seize about 100 cars a month. That has dropped to zero.

Mary Lundberg, a federal prosecutor who oversees the financial litigation unit of the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego, said the decline reflected a cautious response to the law by officials. She said it did not mean that previous seizures were legally suspect.

"We're all trying to work with the new law. We're looking at it and being conservative," Lundberg said.

The shift is welcome news to INS critics, who long held that the agency abused its power by confiscating cars even when drivers were unaware their passengers lacked legal status to enter. Last year, the INS settled a class-action lawsuit with vehicle owners who alleged that the agency gave little or no explanation for taking their cars.

"There were many cases in which the immigration service was abusive and acted illegally in seizing the vehicle and refusing to release them to innocent owners," said Robert Pauw, a Seattle lawyer who represented the plaintiffs.

Pauw charged that officials were motivated to confiscate cars in part because sales generated millions of dollars for the federal government. The value of cars seized by INS inspectors at the six ports of entry in California last year was about $46 million, according to the agency.

On the Southwest border, which has seen a big jump in people being hidden in car trunks and compartments, inspectors complain that they have lost a key weapon. Limited staffing, courtrooms and detention space mean a small portion of the smuggling cases are prosecuted. Most migrants are sent back to the Mexican side after booking. Vehicle forfeiture often was the only punishment for transporting illegal immigrants.

"At least before, there was a sense you were hurt somehow for the crime you committed. What is the incentive to not do it? There is none," said immigration inspector Eric West, who is an officer in the union representing inspectors.

"The only thing we have to go on right now is that most people don't realize this. . . . It's really disheartening," said West, who works at the San Ysidro crossing.

In the past, inspectors would have seized virtually every car that carried a foreigner entering with fake documents or none. The owner had to fight the action in federal court or through an INS administrative appeal, but the odds of winning were poor. Now those motorists who are in the United States legally can get their cars back once authorities have logged the incident.

"In a short period of time--two or three hours--they're gone," said John F. Gawron, a supervisory INS inspector who oversees forfeitures. He said inspectors have seen cars that, released one day, come back another carrying more undocumented immigrants.

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