Overlooking the border fence with Mexico, U.S. Army National Guardsman… (John Moore, Getty Images )
The federal government has tried just about everything to stop the flow of migrants crossing the border illegally. It boosted the number of Border Patrol agents, made punishment harsher, deployed drones and motion sensors, built and rebuilt fences. For years it has even quietly funded the dissemination in Mexico of songs and mini-documentaries about dangers at the border.
Now it is using a more proactive tactic: Since last year, agents in Arizona have called Mexican and Central American television and radio stations and newspapers, asking for the opportunity to tell of the dangers of crossing illegally, particularly through the Sonoran Desert.
The outreach, which was initially greeted with skepticism, is being embraced.
Newspapers in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Michoacan have run stories based on their accounts. Outlets in El Salvador and Guatemala have followed suit. Some ran photos provided by the Border Patrol of packed safe houses and emergency rescues.
"Immigrants are mistreated, assaulted, lied to, made fun of and women are often raped," was the lead to one story in El Diario de Hoy, a daily newspaper in El Salvador.
The efforts are considered successful enough that this year the agents expanded them to U.S. cities with large immigrant communities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Seattle and Atlanta. The goal on this side of the border is to persuade residents to warn family members back home about treacherous conditions, particularly along the Arizona border, agents said.
"Our message is: If you do decide to come, don't come through Arizona," said Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame. "We're seeing a big increase in smuggler abuse; robberies with AK-47s and pistols, knives; rapes of women, more physical abuses — not only in the desert but in safe houses where people are tied up with duct tape."
What effect the public relations effort will have on migrants is unclear. The number of apprehensions at the border is already down dramatically. There were 340,000 last year, compared with 1.6 million in 2000, a drop many experts attribute to fewer migrants attempting to cross.
And many of the threats are already well known. For years, the Mexican government and media have warned migrants about the danger posed by extreme temperatures, crime and U.S. enforcement.
Since 2004 the Border Patrol has spent about $1.1 million annually to anonymously fund the dissemination of musical corridos, mini-documentaries and other public service announcements depicting tragedies at the border.
The campaign, called No Mas Cruces, is not openly sponsored by the U.S. government, in part to make "the message more palatable for the intended audience," said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kerry Rogers.
Some critics have denounced the program for lack of transparency. But government officials consider it successful. One of the songs was nominated for a Latin Grammy. And this year, the program will include an art exhibit of tragedies and dangers that will travel to several small towns in Mexico, Rogers said.
David Fitzgerald and others at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego have spent the last several years researching what migrants in Mexico know about enforcement and dangers at the border and how that knowledge affects whether they decide to come to the U.S.
"People are aware that it's extremely dangerous and that a lot of people are dying," he said. "They have very high levels of knowledge in terms of what's going on at the border."
The researchers found evidence to suggest that people who think the U.S. economy is bad and that the border is very dangerous were less likely to migrate.
Still, the vast majority of people polled who tried to cross illegally into the country succeeded, he said. More than 95% eventually made it through, even after they were apprehended multiple times.
Adame, the Border Patrol agent, and Chris Leon, a Customs and Border Protection official involved in the efforts, said the outreach provides crucial information to migrants. Since October there have been 83 deaths at the Arizona border. Routes are more dangerous now, they said, in part because of increased enforcement.
In their experience, many migrants rely on information provided by people who crossed the border several years ago.
"A lot of times they'll contact someone who is already here and they'll say, 'Oh, yeah, five years ago I came through. It was easy,' " Adame said. "A lot has changed in those last five years, including enforcement being tougher so smugglers are having to take the migrants out further."