April 27, 2013

Lawmakers eye border as part of immigration deal

Senators say they want 90 percent of border crossings stopped before citizenship is available.


NOGALES - Alejandro Vega hiked five days through the Arizona desert and then toiled 10 years busing restaurant tables, building roads and cleaning manure out of horse corrals in the United States before his deportation in 2009.

click image to enlarge

Leslie Lawson is the patrol agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Nogales, Ariz., station. There were 357,000 people apprehended last year, down from 1.68 million in 2000.

The Washington Post

Now, facing the southern side of a 20-foot-tall copper-hued fence in the border city of Nogales, Mexico, he says he's ready to risk prison or death to get back in.

"I don't care how many times I need to try," said Vega, 38, who in March scaled the barrier's iron slats and sprinted to a Walmart parking lot only to be caught and expelled again.

"My life is there -- there's nothing for me in Mexico," he said. "Everything has its risk, but if you never risk, you never gain."

The daily struggle along the rugged Nogales frontier, which the U.S. government ranks as the highest-risk sector of its border with Mexico -- a region where 120,000 people were caught crossing last year -- points to a security challenge central to enactment of any new immigration law. Senators are advancing a bill requiring that the Border Patrol show "90 percent effectiveness" in securing this and other high-risk border sectors -- areas where more than 30,000 people a year are caught crossing -- before legal rights are conferred on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

The concern about border security, which Republican leaders call essential to a broader agreement on a path to citizenship for the undocumented, visas for guest-workers and farmworkers.

In the House, where the immigration bill faces long odds, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., calls border security "very crucial" to any plan. "Exactly how it works in conjunction with the rest of immigration reform, it has yet to be decided," he said.

Legislation filed by a bipartisan group of eight senators demands a border-control plan with fencing and surveillance assuring that 90 percent of those who attempt to cross are caught or turned back to Mexico in these high-risk sectors before other steps are taken on immigration.

There are three such sectors: The area south of Tucson, Ariz., that includes Nogales; the border near Laredo, Texas; and the Rio Grande River valley near Brownsville. The effectiveness of security last year, according to a Government Accountability Office report based on Border Patrol data, has ranged from 87 percent in the Tucson sector to 71 percent along the Rio Grande.

Senators say this makes the border-security in their plan obtainable, enabling the government then to move forward with citizenship for the undocumented and other measures.

"The border-security triggers are strong, but achievable," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has visited the Arizona border in negotiations over the bill, said at an April 18 Washington news conference announcing it.


In the desert region south of Tucson that alternates between rocky gulches and 7,000-foot peaks, part of a 262-mile stretch of an almost 2,000-mile-long border, the challenge is spelled out in numbers: In this sector alone, 124,363 people were caught in 2011, the GAO reports. That's close to one-third of the 328,000 apprehensions along the entire Southwest border. Another 43,539 were turned back; an estimated 25,376 got away.

Manuel Padilla, chief patrol agent of the Tucson sector, said calculating the effectiveness rate, which only applies in the border areas between ports of entry, is "not an exact science."

"In the urban areas, we have a very high effectiveness rate," he said. "Once you start getting into the rural environment, that's where it gets more difficult."

On Interstate 19, at the "19 Charlie" checkpoint between Tucson and Nogales, sits a white, warehouse-sized, flood-lit canopy crossing three lanes about 20 miles north of the border. Agents with K-9 dogs scan a line of cars for suspicious behavior. They target shuttle vans, pulling over many.

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