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On U.S.-Mexican border, new deterrent is jail time

Along a 12-mile stretch, border patrol agents say a zero-tolerance plan has resulted in a 78 percent decrease in arrests.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2008

Rich Clabaugh

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Sunland Park, N.M.; and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

For decades, most Mexicans caught trudging across the desolate and dusty hills of Sunland Park, N.M., have been fingerprinted and promptly sent back over the border.

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But in an effort to slow the revolving door of job-seeking immigrants willing to test high-tech sensors, bike patrols, and fences that guard the American boundary here, border patrol agents have initiated a tough zero-tolerance policy along this 12-mile zone that stretches west from El Paso, Texas.

Anyone caught crossing illegally, agents say, will be arrested and prosecuted, whether it's their first or 50th try. If they attempt to come back within five years, they face a felony charge.

For critics, the policy, which comes amid a tougher culture of border enforcement, will push immigrants into the hands of smugglers and will add to already crowded US jails and burden its courts. For supporters, however, it's a significant attempt to stop a human tide that, despite ebbs, continues largely unabated.

"Despite all this, they continue to come in," says US border patrol agent Ramiro Cordero, pointing to a mix of barriers and cameras. "This solution is zero tolerance.... It is obviously going to stop them." US border patrol officials says this program aimed at deterrence is already working.

From Feb. 25 – when the program called "No Pass" was launched along just three miles near El Paso – until March 9, 62 immigrants were apprehended, compared with 189 in the same period the year before. That's a 78 percent decrease – and to the US border patrol a sign that their principal goal of prevention is working.

The program also operates under the name "Lockdown," in an area further west along New Mexico's border. Almost all of those caught in this zone have been prosecuted.

Albelardo Flores Rojo is one of the most recent. He was detained just outside El Paso. Had he crossed east of the No Pass zone, the Guadalajara native, who was on his way to meet relatives in Los Angeles, most likely would have been returned to Mexico within hours.

Instead, last week he was at the US border patrol's processing center, wearing a red bracelet to signify he will not be going home.

"I was scared, I had no idea I'd go to jail," says Mr. Flores Rojo.

In the past, immigrants who have attempted to cross repeatedly, and all of those with criminal records, were prosecuted. Now, there is no distinction between first-time crossers and those with criminal pasts. All will face charges.

The program has provoked a hailstorm of criticism.

"This is not going to stop immigration, it's only going to push them into more isolated areas," says Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. "They will need more help from smugglers. It will only increase the number dying across the border."