San Diego Union-Tribune
Arrests up since 1994 crackdown at border
County effort fails to deter
By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- Over the past seven years, the Clinton administration and Congress spent billions of dollars along the
Southwest border, vowing to
control illegal immigration.
The tougher policy was designed to discourage people from even trying to cross the border illegally. As a result, officials said at the time,
arrests at the border would soon decline sharply.
By that measure, the promise is unfulfilled.
Despite the much-ballyhooed crackdown, which included Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, apprehensions along the Southwest border last year were 68
percent higher than when it began in 1994.
Although there have been hints of a downward trend in recent months,
arrests last year along the U.S.-Mexico border reached a near-record level of 1.6 million. That's the most since 1986, when large numbers of Mexicans
rushed to cross the border ahead of a landmark immigration law.
But that result is not what officials envisioned in 1994 when they launched a strategy which focused on positioning agents at the border to deter
people from crossing rather than chasing them after they had entered the
At that time, San Diego and El Paso were considered the border's No. 1 and No. 2 corridors of illegal immigration, respectively. The estimate was
based partly on the vast numbers of illegal crossers arrested in the two
After the crackdown, arrests declined sharply in both cities and remain
down -- they reached a 25-year low in San Diego last year.
But those reductions have been more than offset by increases in other
border areas, especially El Centro and Nogales, Ariz.
"One of the strengths of our Southwest border strategy is that it allows
for flexibility and the redeployment of resources to hot spots," said
Border Patrol chief Gus de la Vina.
Critics said the gradually rising arrest rates during the past seven years
undermine the credibility of the government's effort along the border from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas.
"It's a failed policy," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for
Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California San Diego.
"This approach has not generated any appreciable deterrence. The apprehension figures keep ratcheting up along the border. And it's not
trivial, the amount of money being spent -- adding up to billions of
"It's lovely for San Diego -- people don't have illegal aliens traipsing in
their yards and littering, but of course they are all being pushed
elsewhere," Cornelius said. "They have gone to Douglas (Arizona) and the government put up fences and created mini-walls, but the immigration
traffic immediately goes around that and bypasses those fences, like it
bypassed San Diego."
Officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimate that the
number of people illegally resettling in the United States each year
remains steady at about 275,000, despite the dramatic and costly border
enforcement efforts of the past seven years.
And the INS continues to increase the estimate of the undocumented
population, currently at a record level of more than 6 million.
Cornelius and other critics contend that the immigration service
miscalculated the desperation of many immigrants entering the United States illegally.
"I think the volume and scale of migration caught up with (the INS) and
caught them by surprise," said Hans Johnson, a sociologist at the
California Political Institute at Berkeley.
INS officials disagree.
"As we achieve success in certain areas of the border, we work to replicate that success elsewhere along the Southwest border," de la Vina said. "We
will continue to do so until we have achieved an acceptable level of control along the entire Southwest border."
Not evenly enforced
Other critics argue that while the commitment to tighten border enforcement has been sustained over seven years, corresponding efforts to enforce
immigration laws in the workplace have been short-lived, underfunded and
undermined by weaknesses and ambiguities in current immigration laws.
Then-Attorney General Janet Reno and former INS commissioner Doris Meissner announced the new strategy in 1994, calling for "prevention through
deterrence." Then-President Clinton termed it a "get-tough" policy.
Congress provided the INS with huge infusions of cash, and Reno privately gave the Border Patrol a virtual carte blanche on resources, according to
Since Operation Gatekeeper began in October 1994, the INS budget has tripled to $4.6 billion annually, and the size of the Border Patrol has
The government installed high-tech surveillance equipment. It dug
underground sensors. It built massive light structures and layers of
Estimates range from $6 billion to $9 billion for the initiative. The
government has no specific breakdown.
The INS heavily promoted the strategy.
"We have achieved considerable success in restoring integrity and safety to the Southwest border, which is improving the quality of life in border
communities," de la Vina said recently.
It was an oft-repeated statement.
Operation Gatekeeper began with manpower and machines deployed on the westernmost 14-mile segment of the border, running from the Pacific Ocean
to Otay Mesa.
In 1998, Gatekeeper was expanded 66 miles into Imperial County, and then to Yuma, Ariz. Other operations followed: Operation Safeguard in Arizona and
Operation Rio Grande in south Texas.
Without question, the crackdown transformed the border near San Diego.
"Chaos reigned on the border," said William T. Veal, the Border Patrol
chief in San Diego. "Not today."
San Diego's apprehension rate decreased 67 percent from 450,152 arrests in 1994 to 151,681 in 2000.
INS officials theorized early on that migrants would see the obvious risk
of trying to cross the border outside the most populated areas, and they
But the arrests simply shifted elsewhere.
"The desire to come across the border is stronger than the ability of the
United States to police the border," said Frank Sharry of the National
Immigration Forum, an immigration advocate who is critical of the
While San Diego and El Paso's arrest rates plummeted, those in other areas skyrocketed.
Apprehensions in El Centro have increased eightfold since 1994.
Arizona, where a relatively modest number of arrests were being posted at the beginning of the crackdown, last year led the nation with 616,566.
Critics cite the overall high numbers of arrests as evidence that border
control efforts merely divert the flow from one area to another and
ultimately fail to curtail illegal immigration.
Big fall predicted
"The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service touted the Gatekeeper idea by predicting a big fall in the apprehension figures along the entire
Southwest border at the end of five years," said Claudia Smith, director of the border project for Oceanside-based California Rural Legal Assistance.
"Supposedly, the risk of apprehension would be raised high enough to serve as a real deterrent. But apprehension figures confirm that the added
dangers have not slowed the migrant foot traffic."
Smith denounced what she termed harsh consequences of the crackdown.
Since Operation Gatekeeper began, more than 600 people have died attempting
crossings in treacherous and remote terrain along the Southwest border to
avoid the law enforcement crackdowns, according to immigration advocates.
President Bush has generally supported the existing policy, but during the
campaign said he wanted more humane border enforcement. His administration
plans to review the ongoing border crackdown.
Meanwhile, during Bush's meeting with Mexican President Vincente Fox last week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin H. Powell announced that he and
Attorney General John Ashcroft will meet with their Mexican Cabinet counterparts to discuss the migration of Mexican workers north of the
border and their treatment in the United States.
When the tougher border policy was hatched in 1994, INS officials
anticipated that following an influx of Border Patrol agents and other
resources, the number of apprehensions of illegal migrants would initially
increase and then gradually decrease when "deterrence" was achieved.
Under the government's plan, apprehension rates were supposed to decline when a "decisive level of resources had been achieved" along the border,
according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
But the INS never defined what that "decisive" level was, so the timing for the government to reach its goals "remains unclear," investigators said.
"To me," said Cornelius of UCSD, "it's like the old folk tale about the boy putting his finger in the dike. If the INS removed just some of the
resources it has around San Diego, we'd be back to where we were before."