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.


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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

"Every day, we have a seizure of some kind at this checkpoint," said Leslie Lawson, patrol agent in charge of the Nogales station.

In the desert surrounding the checkpoint, cameras and infrared scopes detect illicit movement. In the days after footprints and other evidence of illegal crossing are discovered, agents work to match up the information with the immigrants they apprehend to determine their effectiveness rate.

Officials in Texas's Rio Grande valley haven't had as much success in stemming illegal entries. While they've raised the sector's effectiveness rate from 55 percent in 2006, it remains the major area where migrants are most likely to successfully enter the U.S., the GAO reported.


It isn't only desert that toughens the task.

The Tucson-sector border slices through urbanized Nogales, where homes in Mexico and the U.S. stand a few dozen feet apart. In Nogales, 2.5 miles of rust-colored bollard fencing with iron posts sunk several feet deep divide a community in two. Even the sewage pipes must be patrolled, and tunnels filled.

Lawson, spotting a lookout on a Mexican hilltop, predicts a crossing soon. Within the hour, her truck radio crackles with an apprehension.

"It is a long, slow process, and it is not going to happen overnight," Lawson said of the battle against illegal immigration. "As we're gaining control in the urban areas, they move to the flanks."

Outside Nogales, the border dips and rises over the rolling landscape invisible to strategically placed cameras. To the west, in the Tumacacori Highlands, mountain peaks block vehicular access, limiting access even by all-terrain vehicles or horses and forcing agents to hike in on foot. Padilla said it will require an infusion of technology such as sensors and cameras to enhance enforcement in these outposts.

There's a practical limit to barriers that can be built. It costs $6 million a mile to fence flat land, Lawson said, and more on rougher terrain. "Is a 15-foot fence on top of a 5,000- foot peak going to make a difference?" she asked.

Overall, attempted border crossings are down since 2000, when 1.68 million people were apprehended on the Southwest border, according to the U.S Customs and Border Protection agency. Last year, the number was about 357,000.


For all the security, the economy has played a role in the immigrant flow. The U.S. recession and Mexican growth have lessened the lure of manual labor north of the border, according to a Pew Research Center study released a year ago.

Net Mexican migration dropped to zero from 2005 to 2010, it found, with the 1.4 million people immigrating to the U.S. equaling the number moving from the U.S. to Mexico. That trend could reverse should the Mexican economy slow or U.S. activity pick up.

"This is the most opportune moment for migration pressures," said Doris Meissner, commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton. The agency was responsible for border patrol until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, later divided into three new entities under the Department of Homeland Security.

The Texas border has faced more pressure because it's the preferred route for immigrants from Central America, Meissner, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, said in a telephone interview.

While the Mexican economy has grown at about double the pace of the U.S. economy since the end of 2009 amid an explosion of manufacturing, nations like El Salvador and Honduras lacking that dynamic have been plagued by drug wars and gang violence.

"The bigger back story is the things in Mexico that have changed this equation," Meissner said. "The difficulty is that they apply to Mexico and not Central America."

Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino questions if anything will ever completely secure the border - and if it's worth it.

"I don't care what kind of a fence you put - if somebody needs to feed their family, and they think the opportunity is coming to the United States, and they still know that they will get a job, that nobody's going to be asking questions about the job, they will live in the shadows," he said. "I'm sure you would do it, and I would do it too, if we needed to survive."


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