SAN DIEGO — A congressional report says the U.S. government's 7-year-old crackdown along the Southwest border has served mainly to steer undocumented migrants to dangerous mountains, deserts and rivers but has produced no persuasive evidence that illegal entries have fallen along the 2,000-mile boundary.
The assessment is included in an annual evaluation of U.S. border strategy by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The report said that while arrests have plummeted to record lows in some formerly troubled areas, such as San Diego, overall arrests on the border rose between 1994 and 2000.
The clampdown, which began in October 1994, when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service launched Operation Gatekeeper on California's border, has been extended to areas in Arizona and Texas that are hot spots for illegal crossings. Migrant smugglers have adjusted by taking back-country routes.
"Although illegal alien apprehensions have shifted, there is no clear indication that overall illegal entry into the United States along the Southwest border has declined," concluded the 30-page report issued Thursday.
U.S. Border Patrol agents made a record 1.6 million arrests in the 12 months ended last Sept. 30, well up from 979,101 apprehensions in 1994. The report said the strategy's effectiveness was unclear in part because the INS has not analyzed arrest data sufficiently to show whether fewer people are trying to cross.
The GAO said the INS strategy of blocking immigrants from entering urban areas through a buildup of agents has come at a high cost for the migrants and the INS.
"Rather than being deterred from attempting illegal entry, many aliens have instead risked injury and death by trying to cross mountains, deserts and rivers," the GAO said, echoing criticisms made repeatedly by migrant rights activists.
The audit said INS officials thought inhospitable terrain would deter crossers and were caught off guard at the number of migrants willing to take such risks. Officials have acknowledged this before.
The report said it could take up to nine years for Congress to approve the 3,200 to 5,500 more agents thought necessary to control the border. So far, the buildup has more than doubled the agent force to about 8,500.
But the GAO also noted that border arrests have fallen sharply since October--a possible sign of fewer attempted crossings. Arrests stood at slightly fewer than 1.1 million as of July 31--a drop of 24% from the same period a year earlier. That development puzzles many experts and has prompted a flurry of theories among officials and migration scholars.
U.S. immigration officials on Friday were eager to offer their explanation for the decline. It is evidence, they said, of the emerging success of a strategy that involves pouring agents into heavily crossed zones, erecting fences and installing lights and high-tech sensors to detect entries.
Such efforts have brought relative quiet to the border south of San Diego and about 400 miles away in Nogales, Ariz., and will work elsewhere if given time, INS officials said.
"We're not saturated any longer. The biggest tide change in the strategy is now upon us," said Johnny Williams, Western regional director for the INS and an architect of Gatekeeper. "After this many months, [the drop in arrests] certainly suggests we're on the right track."
Border Patrol officials added that migrant fatalities--totaling 1,099 since October 1997--have fallen since last year, when 367 people died crossing the border. The toll from last October through July 31 was 235, nearly 20% lower than in the same period a year earlier.
"That's a pretty good indication right there that the border is safer," said Bill Carter, an associate chief of the Border Patrol.
Carter spoke after a graduation ceremony in San Diego for 32 agents who were trained to rescue migrants from snow-covered mountains, scorching deserts or swift currents.
The agents, representing five sectors from El Centro to Del Rio, Texas, are part of a plan to create so-called border search trauma and rescue teams across the entire border, as is called for under a recent agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. Teams are in place now only in San Diego and Tucson.
The border safety agreement came after 14 people died in May while crossing the desert in southern Arizona amid 115-degree temperatures. Twelve others were rescued, including a man who was believed to be leading the group. The suspect faces federal smuggling charges.
The shift in illegal crossings to desolate areas has at times made rescuers of agents who used to worry only about catching immigrants and deporting them. The new emphasis was apparent during the ceremony for the border agents, wearing black T-shirts that depicted rescuers rappelling from a helicopter.
"Our basic mission has not changed, but it's evolved," said Kenneth Stitt, who heads the Border Patrol's El Centro office.
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The U.S. government's crackdown around border cities has steered undocumented immigrants to
remote and inhospitable regions, where many die of exposure or drowning.
% of total border deaths Border sector 1998-2001* San Diego 10.0% El Centro 26.6% Yuma 5.8% Tucson 16.0% El Paso 6.9% Marfa 0.6%** Del Rio 12.7% Laredo 10.7% McAllen 10.6%
* Fiscal years from Oct. 1, 1997, through Aug. 1, 2001.
** Deaths in 1999 were not available.
Cause of death 1999 2000 2001** Exposure to heat 57 135 77 Drowning 72 92 51 Unknown 38 43 64 Vehicle accident 21 48 25 Other 15 27 11
Cause of death 1999 2000 2001** Exposure to cold 18 17 4 Train 14 5 3 Confined space 1 0 0 Total 236 367 235
* Fiscal year from Oct. 1 through Aug. 1
Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service