February 13, 2013

Immigration reform: Change brings a sense of urgency

If the U.S. is really changing immigration laws, no deportees want to be on the wrong side of the fence.

By NICK MIROFF/The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

A man from Sinaloa, Mexico, waits at his camp near the U.S. border. He has tried 14 times to return to his family in Los Angeles since being deported.

Photo for The Washington Post by Javier Manzano

That's when many of these men crossed over for the first time, in their late teens or early 20s.

Today the area is perhaps the toughest part of one of the most heavily guarded and closely watched international boundaries in the world. The Department of Homeland Security has doubled border security and immigration enforcement spending since 2006 to $18 billion a year, deploying sensors, cameras, fencing, surveillance drones and federal agents.

The immigration overhaul proposals from Congress and the White House promise to harden the border even more.

The Department of Homeland Security does not estimate how many illegal migrants make it across, but researchers and the migrants themselves say the odds of getting caught are greater than ever.

Since 2005, the United States has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents deployed along the Mexico boundary to 18,516, an all-time high.

Once overwhelmed, the average agent now makes fewer than 20 arrests a year, with apprehensions of illegal migrants along the southwest border at their lowest levels in four decades. Immigration experts point to tougher enforcement and widespread fears of criminal gangs on the Mexican side, as well as a tighter U.S. job market and better opportunities in Mexico.

Along the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, extending 60 miles through desert and mountains down to the Tijuana beach, where the fence extends into the surf, the number of illegal migrants arrested each year has plunged from a peak of more than 628,000 in 1986 to 42,447 during fiscal 2011, the most recent period for which figures are available. Arrests in the San Diego sector have dropped 75 percent since 2008.

"Barely anyone tries to cross here anymore," said Pablo Morales, a state human rights official who works with deportees in this small border city, shadowed by the giant fermentation vats at the eponymous beer brewery.

Tecate is known as a difficult place to cross because of the terrain and tight security, but it's considered far safer than the Texas border, where kidnappings are routine and the fearsome drug cartel known as Los Zetas has carried out horrific massacres against migrants.

The Arizona desert east of Nogales remains the most popular place to attempt a crossing, and there migrants say the Sinaloa cartel charges a $150 "toll" to cross but enforces its own security - no robberies, no kidnappings allowed - with lethal efficiency.

If you can't pay that, Tecate is one place to cross.

But it's not a good place to get caught. Often, migrants who are picked up in California are released thousands of miles away in Mexican cities such as Nuevo Laredo - Zeta country - along the Texas border.

Church shelters there often lock deportees inside all day to protect them from abductions, the men here said. Charities will pay bus fare for the trip back to Tecate.

Having enough bed space used to be the main worry of the nuns who run Tecate's only migrant shelter, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Now their biggest concern is sorting the migrants and deportees from the addicts and homeless who pretend they're preparing to cross but really have nowhere else to go.

When the shelter opens at 5:30 p.m., Reina Ines Bahena, the mother superior, takes photos of new arrivals with a digital camera and records their documents. No one is allowed to stay longer than four nights in a row. Only the clean and sober are welcome.

"This is a dangerous place," Bahena said. "Some of the men who come here are rapists, killers, thieves. We've had extortion threats and armed men with AK-47s trying to break in."

She and three sisters serve dinner, then barricade themselves behind a locked gate for the night while a male custodian supervises the men.

Some openly admitted to drug addiction. One said he was a former meth user and gang member in Los Angeles who fled to Guadalajara two years ago to lay low. He wants to return, he said, because those who were trying to kill him are in prison.

"I came to the States when I was 9 and had never been back to Mexico," said Manuel Marquez, 33, in unaccented English.

Now drug-free and newly devout, he said, he has two kids and a welding job waiting for him in the Reseda area of Los Angeles.

"Mexico was beautiful," he said, "but man, it sucks to be poor."


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