San Diego Union-Tribune

Page A-11

20-Feb-2001 Tuesday

Recent decline in arrests at border perplexes INS 

By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- Although arrests along the Southwest border remain at near-record levels after seven years of stepped-up enforcement, the number has dropped in the past four months.

Officials are unsure why and are not ready to declare it a trend.

From Oct. 1 through Jan. 31, preliminary figures suggest a 22 percent decline in apprehensions by Border Patrol agents of people trying to illegally cross the stretch of border from San Diego to Texas.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service is perplexed.

"We've got a group of people looking at the numbers," said INS spokeswoman Nicole Chulick. "We need to watch it for a few months to gain a better understanding of what's happening. It could be anything from the weather to the political and economic situation in Mexico."

Mexicans may have been encouraged by new Mexican President Vicente Fox to stay home. Others may have been discouraged from crossing the border because of inclement weather along the border, Chulick said.

In the meantime, the Border Patrol has dispatched hundreds of agents to areas such as southern and central Arizona, where an influx of illegal immigrants last year made that region the busiest corridor along the border.

"It's too early to claim a success, but these are areas where we have concentrated our resources," Chulick said.

"Normally, we experience a heavy influx from January to April. We'll see by April," she said.

Gus de la Vina, the Border Patrol chief, is one of the top INS officials evaluating the latest arrest figures.

De la Vina, an architect of San Diego's Operation Gatekeeper, acknowledged that fluctuating apprehension figures have confounded him in the past.

"There are many factors that influence apprehensions and the data has been highly variable," said de la Vina, former sector chief in San Diego.