Peso Decline Drives More Mexicans Across US Border

THE sudden slump of the peso has prompted thousands of Mexicans to head for the United States.

Illegal immigration rose at several key checkpoints along the US-Mexican border in January, US officials report. The increase was particularly sharp in Texas.

US Border Patrol agents blame the sudden decline of the peso, which they say is driving Mexicans across the border in search of dollar-paying jobs. ``It's a direct result,'' says Letty Valadez of the patrol's McAllen, Texas, sector. January apprehensions there topped 14,300, up 9 percent.

Three of the patrol's nine Southern sectors reported declines, however, including a major one in California.

There's hardly any doubt that illegal immigration from Mexico will increase this year, says Jorge Gonzales, an economist with Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. But the key to its size will be Mexican interest rates.

Professor Gonzales, an expert on Mexico's economy, says that before the devaluation interest rates were 15 to 25 percent for business loans - still quite high compared with the 7-percent inflation rate, but they were coming down. The devaluation kicked interest rates to 50 percent.

President Clinton's aid package was the right move to stabilize interest rates, he says. If they slide back to 25 percent, the Mexican economy will maintain slight growth and job creation. Higher interest rates would cause a recession and job losses.

``People will look for jobs wherever they can find them, and the US has jobs,'' Gonzales says.

He gives less weight to the impact of Mexican inflation as a stimulus to a northward stampede. ``They won't pack up and leave because of that,'' Gonzales says.

For whatever reason, the 200 miles of Rio Grande in the patrol's Del Rio, Texas, sector saw a 50-percent rise, to 6,900 apprehensions, says supervisory intelligence agent Aaron Billings.

Following the 1982 peso devaluation, Mr. Billings notes, activity in the sector jumped more than 70 percent for three years. ``We're looking for a bumper crop this year'' of 60,000 to 70,000 apprehensions, compared with 50,000 in 1994, he says.

The reinforcements announced recently by Attorney General Janet Reno for the southern border will include more than 100 agents for the Del Rio sector. They will be in place by August, Billings says.

Apprehensions in the Laredo area rose 23 percent. Agents in El Paso, where Operation Hold the Line had deterred attempted crossings and thus caused a dramatic decline in apprehensions, nabbed 25 percent more illegals this January than last.

The Tucson, Ariz., sector experienced the biggest increase, a near doubling.

The largest decline, 39 percent, was seen in the Yuma, Ariz., sector, which encompasses 118 miles of border. Much of the area is forbidding desert.

The El Centro sector in California had a 23 percent drop, while illegal border traffic in San Diego, facing stronger enforcement, was off 18 percent.

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