As '96 Vote Looms, US Steps Up Patrols On Mexican Border

THOUGHTS of the holiday season have been put away like so many reboxed ceramic nativity sets. Refocused on making a living in the new year, tens of thousands of Mexicans now are preparing to head north to jobs on ''the other side'' of the border.

It's an annual ritual, the post-holiday return of Mexicans - legal and illegal migrants alike - to the United States. But this year, illegal immigrants can expect to have a harder time getting across the border in California and Arizona than they have in years past.

As of Jan. 16, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began adding new Border Patrol agents, new equipment, some new fencing, and even some extra military participation to the battle to control the Southwest border.

American officials say the reinforced border surveillance, to be paid for by a $500 million INS budget increase approved earlier this month, is simply meant to return the rule of law to a border that had become lawless.

In addition to stopping the flow of illegal aliens, the new measures are also designed to combat drug trafficking and other crimes along the border.

The new effort focuses on California and Arizona, where apprehensions of illegal aliens have increased the most over the past year.

In Mexico, however, many observers see the new stand at the border as fresh evidence - following measures taken recently against Mexican exports - that in a year of American presidential politics, Mexico can expect to take repeated hits from a northern giant.

Mexican government officials condemn the reinforced border policing - and especially the use of military personnel - as hardly neighborly. More forcefully, Mexican congressional leaders, along with business leaders and religious and civil rights activists, criticize the measures as an affront to Mexico and a threat to the human rights of migrating Mexicans. One Mexican senator is calling for United Nations mediation in what the Mexican press has called in banner headlines the border's ''militarization.''

Many Mexicans - as well as some American analysts of US immigration policy - suspect the new border measures have not so much to do with seasonal migration as with the 1996 US presidential election. They note that the new tough-sounding measures were announced at the beginning of a campaign where immigration is expected to figure as a key issue. The bulk of the initial border reinforcement will come in California - where anti-immigration sentiments run high, and where President Clinton must win in November if he hopes to be reelected.

The new border-control measures were announced Jan. 12 by Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. They include hundreds of Border Patrol agents to be added over the next few months, additional surveillance at Southwestern US airports, stepped-up coordination with local law enforcement, increased assistance from American military personnel, and sophisticated new tracking equipment.

The steps follow an INS media campaign in Mexican states with high migration. It warns that crossing the border illegally this year will be more difficult.

The new measures also reflect acknowledgment by American officials that Mexico's recession in the wake of the December 1994 peso crash is leading to increased illegal immigration - something the US originally claimed was not happening. The economic downturn ''is creating migration pressures,'' Mrs. Meissner now says.

Border Patrol agents arrested 1.3 million illegal aliens in fiscal year 1995, which ended in September, compared with 1.1 million the year before. To some observers, these numbers suggest that earlier beefing up of the Border Patrol and increased spending is not stemming the flow of migrants. But arrest figures are always a source of controversy, since they do not show the number of repeat arrests, which is generally large.

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