Union Tribune

January 23, 2004

BUSH PLAN A MAGNET

By JOE CANTLUPE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

and Gregory Alan Gross
STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON More than half the people accused of using phony documents to sneak through the San Ysidro port of entry in recent days said they were trying to get into the United States because of President Bush's proposal to give temporary legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

Of 162 people stopped for using phony documents at San Ysidro since Bush announced his plan on Jan. 7, 94 said they were trying to enter because of the proposed new work program, according to sources present at a Wednesday meeting of a border-security working group in San Diego.

Border Patrol officials have reported a 15 percent increase in the use of phony documents at the San Ysidro port compared with the same period a year ago.

Bush's plan, designed to match willing workers with willing employers, would provide temporary legal status to illegal immigrants working in the United States and to others outside the country if they can show they have a job offer.

His proposal has been widely publicized in Mexico. In some quarters, it is being characterized as an amnesty, despite Bush's contention that it is not.

Some U.S. border enforcement officers and immigration policy experts have predicted that just talking about the proposal would encourage more people to try to get into the country.

"We're getting a lot of people asking about this," said senior border agent Sean Moran, who works in Imperial Beach. "They're asking what they need to do to qualify."

Many of the immigrants are "first-timers," said Moran, who also serves as spokesman for Local 1613 of the agents' union, the National Border Patrol council.

"At the Imperial Beach station where I work, I've noticed a definite spike in apprehensions," he said. "We're also catching more women and children, which we haven't in awhile. We're catching a lot of the same people every day."

Department of Homeland Security officials said the increases began in October, well before Bush unveiled his proposal.

"We were starting to see increases in the beginning of the fiscal year," said Mario Villarreal, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The Border Patrol's San Diego sector headquarters reported 31,204 apprehensions of illegal immigrants between Oct. 1, 2003, which was the start of the fiscal year, and this week. For the same period a year ago, the number was 22,375.

Moran said he saw a surge last fall, but has seen another since Bush's announcement.

"There were a handful compared to several dozen now an eightfold increase, and it all started with Bush's announcement," Moran said.

"These people are mostly volunteering the information. We are asking them, just out of curiosity, why they are here and they are asking how they qualify for this amnesty."

Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UCSD, said he isn't surprised by an upturn in illegal immigration.

"It's not huge, considering the saturation publicity this has gotten in Mexico," Cornelius said. "It's predictable. This will continue until the new rules of the game are crystal clear ... maybe once Congress gets around to acting on the Bush proposal a year or so from now. We're looking at a fairly long period."

Talk of any amnesty-type program "attracts more illegal immigrants and that's not surprising," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

"The news doesn't necessarily spread accurately in Mexico or even among illegal aliens in the U.S.," Krikorian said. "They suspect there's an amnesty in effect. This is just attracting more illegal aliens and demoralizing our law enforcement personnel."

Immigration lawyers and immigrant rights groups say they, too, are getting inquiries from immigrants hoping to take advantage of Bush's proposal. "News travels quickly," said Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum, "and people are yearning for a better life."

Christian Ramirez, of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, said his group got at least 50 calls the day after Bush unveiled his proposal, "and it's been a constant flow ever since."

So far, Ramirez hasn't noticed any great influx, but as the immigration debate continues, he expects more people to head for the United States.

The confusion in Mexico about Bush's statements is understandable, Ramirez said, because of the differences between the way government works in Mexico and the way things are done in the United States.

Most Mexicans grew up under a government in which a proposed new policy from the president's office was treated as law.

"Bush made certain allusions, and some media outlets have characterized this as an amnesty, which plays on people's hopes, when in reality there's nothing there for them to grab onto," Ramirez said.

That has happened before, and not exclusively with Mexican migrants.

In the wake of Hurricane Mitch, which left thousands dead in Central America in late 1998, U.S. immigration officials announced that Hondurans and Nicaraguans already in the United States illegally would be granted a temporary legal status.

However, what was meant as a humanitarian gesture from Washington affecting immigrants already here was widely misinterpreted in Central America, especially in hurricane-ravaged Honduras, as a blanket amnesty for the hurricane victims.

Thousands poured across the border through Mexico, heading for the United States, only to be told at the U.S.-Mexico border that they had made the long, dangerous journey in vain.

Members of Mexico's Grupo Beta, which patrols the Mexican side of the border, said it's too early to tell if Bush's announcement is having a major impact on crossings in the Tecate and Mexicali regions.

"These are typically months when a lot of people are crossing," said Marco Antonio Caballero, an agent who works out of the Mexicali region.

Caballero said he recently ran into a migrant who mentioned that he was hoping to work under whatever plan Bush came up with.

But after being caught three times trying to cross the border, being robbed and losing weight, the migrant decided to go home and wait until the plan takes effect.

Dmitri Papademetriou, an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said that by making a public announcement of its intended plans, the United States created "all sorts of expectations across the board."

"The U.S. and Mexico should engage in a public service announcement," he suggested, "explaining there's no advantage to coming across the border illegally."