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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.

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Many of those crossing in this area are caught wading across the Rio Grande, sneaking across the roads under constant vigil, even driving four-wheel trucks across wire tied to wooden poles. Many also attempt to cross the canals outside El Paso.

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Of 29 deaths last year, says Mr. Cordero, a border patrol spokesman, some 13 drowned in waters that can have undercurrents of up to 30 miles per hour.

"People say tougher enforcement makes the process less safe," he says, "but in this case it really is about safety."

At the Casa del Migrante in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, those waiting to cross into the US say they are unfazed by the policy.

Alfredo Santo, who has a job making bricks until he earns enough money to attempt the journey, says he has no doubts he'll elude officials – so he doesn't have to worry about more punitive policies.

"I have faith I will not get caught," he says. "I'm sure of it."

Diana Morales, who coordinates legal services at the Migrant Center for Human Rights in Ciudad Juárez, says that such sentiment underscores the reason that enforcement will never work.

"Even if they have to spend time in jail, it won't stop them," she says. "That is what people in the US do not understand."

The No Pass and Lockdown programs have been piloted in other parts of the border, including Yuma and Tucson, Ariz.

In the busy Tucson sector, local officials have expressed concerns in the local media about overcrowded jails and courts, since the program was implemented in January.

In the El Paso sector, some 75,000 people were apprehended last year and some worry the system will be overwhelmed by the new program.

"What I'm bracing for is an increase in the number of cases brought," says Andre Poissant, an El Paso-based attorney whose clients, two Mexican brothers and cousin, were among the first to be caught and charged under the No Pass plan. They received 12-day sentences.

Cordero says that not all immigrants prosecuted will get jail time, which can range from several days to several months. He says that some will face expedited removal. In both cases, they still face felony charges if they enter again within five years.

Still, some say this is an easy solution to a problem that allows the US and Mexico to avoid the real challenges at hand.

"Mexico needs to get its act together with development programs," says Tony Payan, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso. "And the US has to find a way to get labor into the US in an organized, legal way."