Arizona Merchants Decry Tougher US Border Policy

Peso devaluation, tighter controls hit shop owners hard

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S a painful sign of the times: A Safeway just yards from the border that served Mexican shoppers for more than 40 years will close March 11.

The reason is twofold. Devaluation of the Mexican peso has made US goods on the Arizona side of the border more expensive. And local merchants say a Border Patrol crackdown instituted last month is making a bad situation worse.

Many merchants in Nogales, Ariz., rely on Mexican shoppers from nearby Nogales, Sonora, for more than half their sales and have been devastated by the devaluation. As the peso loses value, it takes more of them to buy US goods. So items that used to be cheaper on the US side - from jeans to milk to diapers - are now the same price or cheaper in Mexico.

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The crisis is a microcosm of some of the cross-pressures facing towns all along the US-Mexican border.

``It's an ugly situation,'' says Jose Salazar, assistant manager of Puchi's Pants Center, surveying his empty store.

Mr. Salazar and other merchants also blame increased enforcement by the Border Patrol for discouraging customers. Using sensors, aircraft, night-vision devices, and 62 more agents, the Border Patrol arrested 17,579 Mexicans in Nogales last month, up from 10,476 in January.

Local merchants believe that many of those who used to shop in their stores are residents of Nogales, Sonora, who used to come and go through holes in the fence, just to make purchases. Satisfied customers

``People crossed to buy a TV, and then went back again,'' Salazar says. But as in El Paso and San Diego, such casual crossings are increasingly difficult.

Some experts warn of the unintended consequences of recent Border Patrol crackdowns.

``These operations are a serious threat to the economic and social partnerships border communities have built over many years,'' says Roberto Martinez, director of the San Diego office of the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit group that supports immigrants' rights.

Nogales city officials must tread a narrow line between approving of toughened law enforcement and encouraging business. When United States Attorney General Janet Reno came to Nogales to oversee the Border Patrol's ``Operation Safeguard,'' Mayor Louie Valdez told her: ``We don't have a problem with you vigorously enforcing the immigration laws, but it's also important to facilitate legal entry of Mexicans who want to come here.''

To that end, Mayor Valdez and others have asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to speed up the processing of applications for border-crossing cards, which are permits that allow Mexican citizens who live near the border to enter the United States for brief visits. Currently, most Mexicans must wait several months to get their cards, a delay that critics say encourages fence-jumping. Some argue illegal-alien arrests would drop if crossing cards were easier to obtain.

Coming to stay

INS officials disagree.

``Very few illegal aliens the Border Patrol arrests have more than $5 or $10 in their pocket,'' says Gary Rehbein, deputy director of the Nogales port of entry. ``They're not shoppers.''

Mr. Rehbein says the INS has to be careful and methodical in giving crossing cards, because of the danger that people will use the cards to come into the country to work or stay. In order to get a card, Mexicans must prove that they live in the border area, have a job, or are ``financially stable,'' and have no criminal record, including no record of illegal entry. The cards entitle them to go up to 25 miles into the US for up to 72 hours at a time.

INS officials say they've gotten the message from border communities, and in mid-February began tackling the crossing-card backlog in several cities.

``The plan is, by April 1, the wait won't be any more than a week,'' Rehbein says.

But for some Nogales merchants, that may be too late.

As one man who waited six months for his card says, ``After what's happened to the peso, I hope it's worth it.''

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