SASABE, MEXICO — The dusty Grand Central Station of illegal journeys into the United States lies on the fringes of this village near the Arizona border, in a junkyard littered with demolished cars.
Migrants wearing backpacks meet smugglers here and pile into pickup trucks for bumpy rides to crossing points across the vast Altar Valley.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Border enforcement: An article in Section A on March 21 about increased enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border gave the name of Michael Nicley, the retired chief of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector, as Michael Nicely.
But these days many of those who set out to cross the border soon return, unsuccessful and exhausted. Hundreds who manage to cross each day are apprehended swiftly on the U.S. side.
Crossing has become so difficult that the number of people coming to Sasabe has dropped by more than two-thirds from last year, according to Mexican officials.
The turn of events here in the busiest illegal-immigration corridor on the border -- where more than 1 million migrants have entered in recent years -- is among the most dramatic examples of how tougher border enforcement is disrupting the flow of migrants.
Previous crackdowns have served only to shift illegal crossings to new areas, but so far this year there are no signs that the border has sprung another leak. Apprehensions have decreased in every area along the Southwest border, in some places by more than two-thirds.
Overall, apprehensions from October 2006 through last month were down 30% from the same period a year earlier, from 433,446 to 304,071, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Interviews with dozens of migrants as well as medical workers, experts and activists on both sides of the border back up the assertions of U.S. and Mexican authorities that fewer people are trying to cross and that those who do try are more likely to get caught.
Late last month, Jesus Jose Bosquez, 25, and 200 others wandered in the hills for two days trying to get to Tucson.
"The Border Patrol was everywhere," said Bosquez, who was interviewed after he gave up and returned to Sasabe.
Bosquez has crossed illegally several times but now doubts whether he will ever be able to return to his wife and kids in Chicago.
"The situation is very difficult," he said.
Rite of passage
No one claims any permanent disruptions of migration yet. The migrant experience is almost a rite of passage for poor, young Mexicans, and hundreds of thousands still try to cross, many successfully. Experts point out that similar drops in apprehensions in years past were later followed by surges.
But U.S. border authorities, normally cautious after years of failed efforts to gain control, say they are increasingly confident that they are making significant progress, mainly because of new enforcement tools, with more on the way. About 2,500 new agents will be hired this year, adding to the 1,000 hired in 2006. About 3,000 National Guard troops are scheduled to remain on the border for another year. And the government has earmarked $1.2 billion for more barriers, sensors and surveillance equipment along the frontier.
"I think this is maybe the first time in history that we know that deterrence is taking hold," said Michael Nicely, the recently retired chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.
Some experts say there may be other explanations, including the possibility that migrants are waiting to see if enforcement eases this spring.
Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, says smugglers eventually will find new routes into the country because the underlying incentives are stronger than ever.
"The modes of entry do change. Location of entries change. But the basic dynamics of the process don't change, because the economic factors and family ties that drive the movement haven't changed," he said.
Still, Cornelius believes that many immigrants already in the U.S. have stopped going back to Mexico, slowing the huge circular migration.
Unlike past efforts that targeted specific areas, the recent enforcement buildup stretches across the entire border.
In San Diego last year, an area with double fencing that is already among the most heavily guarded on the border also got remote video surveillance cameras that see far into Tijuana's most notorious smuggling enclave.
In the Del Rio area of Texas, all illegal crossers, including first-timers who are typically returned to Mexico without facing charges, are now usually jailed for two weeks as part of a new zero-tolerance policy. Apprehensions in the area are down 61% from last year, according to the Border Patrol.
In the border regions of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, which many experts thought would see a jump in activity after the crackdown in Arizona, apprehensions are down 42%.
But it is Arizona, the favored crossing point of most migrants, that is experiencing the most significant disruptions as the peak migrant-crossing season approaches this month.