In October, Border Patrol agents in Laredo, Texas, noticed five Asian men walking quietly but resolutely on a downtown street, suitcases in hand. An investigation disclosed they were Koreans who had illegally entered the United State through Mexico. Although the vast majority of illegal aliens arrested in the US are Mexicans, a growing number each year are from regions as close as Canada and Central America, and as far away as Eastern Europe and China. Increasingly, their preferred route of illegal entry is across the US-Mexico border.
``They've found out what we've known for a long time,'' says Omer Sewell, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Harlingen, Texas. ``Chances are good they can get across our land border down here.''
INS spokesman Duke Austin adds, ``It's common knowledge out there that if you can get into Mexico, you can make it into the US across this border.'' With entry into Mexico becoming easier as that country seeks to boost tourism, he says, the number of non-Mexican illegals keeps growing.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 40,500 non-Mexican aliens were apprehended on the border: still a tiny fraction of the nearly 1.3 million Mexicans arrested, but a marked increase over last year's 35,983 apprehensions.
``Blame it on the international grapevine,'' says Silvestre Reyes, chief Border Patrol agent for the McAllen, Texas, district. ``Those who make it call or write back home and say, `This is how I did it,BORDERBORDER this is how much I'm making, and here's how you can get over here.' ''
Mr. Reyes says the ``pipelines'' that help illegal immigrants reach their US destination operate ``a lot like travel agencies that offer complete packages: They have recruiters, transporters, people who arrange accommodations, false documentation, and buy-offs. In some cases they charter whole buses.''
Despite the recent influx of Eastern European and Asian aliens, the majority of non-Mexican aliens arrested along the border continue to be Central Americans. Each year about half of the non-Mexican aliens apprehended -- nearly 20,000 this year -- are Salvadoreans.
That increase comes on the heels of El Salvador's civil war and the armed rebellion in Nicaragua. The region's general economic turmoil is also to blame.
Many of the Salvadoreans seek political asylum, but that status is difficult to achieve. The Reagan administration's view is that most illegal Central Americans are here for economic reasons -- and thus deportable. Last year less than 4 percent of the 13,500 Salvadoreans who sought asylum received it.
For most of the Mexicans apprehended, the penalty is no more than a trip back across the border. For the non-Mexicans, however, the scenario is often more complicated. Those who refuse to return home voluntarily or who don't have the money for the trip are detained in one of 12 ``processing centers'' across the country.
Most of the centers are operated by the INS, but two -- in Houston and Laredo -- are run privately by the Corrections Corporation of America. A new long-term detention facility, nearing completion in Louisiana, will be run by the Bureau of Prisons. The bureau already operates a long-term facility in Atlanta.
The Port Isabel detention center, on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, is the largest short-term facility, with room for 580 males and 100 females.
Operated like a low-security prison, the facility has dormitories, basketball courts and soccer fields, and cubicles where attorneys meet with their clients. The average stay, according to Jesus Rosales, assistant chief detention officer, is 22 days, which may explain in part why the Port Isabel center has not experienced the kind of trouble that other facilities have.
An Arizona detention center was heavily damaged this summer during a riot by Cuban detainees who wanted to go home. The Cubans came to the US during the 1980 boatlift but had later committed crimes in this country. Another facility, in El Centro, Calif., was the scene last summer of a hunger strike over living conditions.
For detainees at Port Isabel, the major complaint appears to be boredom. ``Sometimes it's crowded and always I am anxious to leave,'' says Juan-Carlos Garc'ia, a Colombian. ``If they don't want me in United States, why don't they let me go home?''
Mr. Garc'ia was caught a year ago in El Paso, Texas, during an earlier attempt to enter the US. At that time he was able to pay for a flight home, so he left immediately. This time he doesn't have the money and must wait for a deportation hearing. He says that as a Colombian he has little chance of being released on bond, as many of the Eastern Europeans, Asians, and Salvadoreans are, because ``the United States thinks all Colombians are in cocaine.''
Even when his deportation is ordered, his return could be further delayed if the local INS district doesn't have money for his plane ticket. Despite INS's $76 million detention and deportation budget, a $6 million increase over last year, many districts are running short in their monthly allocations for deportation.
The INS considers deportation its best weapon against the international grapevine that says aliens may enter the US with impunity. ``About the strongest signal we can send is to return those aliens who thought they could enter the country surreptitiously,'' says Mr. Austin of INS. A strict deportation policy, he says, has worked well in reducing the numbers of illegal Haitians, Cubans, and Afghans.
Yet none of the aliens interviewed, no matter how deep their frustration or disillusionment over their detention, indicated that deportation would discourage them from again seeking entry to the US.
Two-time offender Juan-Carlos Garc'ia says that he would probably make another attempt at illegal entry.
``My mother, father, so many people depend on me to work, but things are becoming more difficult in my country,'' the Colombian said. ``This [detention] makes me lose so much time, but still I want to work in United States.'' Then with a grin, ``Yes, I think I got to try again.
Third of five articles. Tomorrow: Border economics. -- 30 -- cho The yearly total is also a 60 percent increase over 1982's 24,000 apprehensions of non-Mexicans.cho INS officials attribute the increase to poor economic conditions in many countries coupled with the growing accessibility of international travel. They add that once one alien successfully crosses the border, reaches his destination, and lands a job, his messages home often have a snowball effect. cho McAllen, near the southern-most point of Texas, has become a favored entry point for the non-Mexicans. To explain, Reyes points to a map. ``We're closer to Mexico City here than we are to Dallas,'' he says. ``It costs only $28 to fly from Mexico City to Reynosa,'' McAllen's twin city on the Mexican side of the border. cho For the non-Mexican aliens coming from overseas, Mexico City is a common hub from which to travel north. Those coming from Eastern Europe typically pass through Moscow and Havana before reaching Mexico City in the guise of tourists, says Victor Villarreal, an intelligence officer with the INS in Laredo. In the case of Asians, he adds, the journey often includes a stop in Washington. When entry to the US is denied there, ``the next stop is Mexico City, where they locate the smugglers to help them get in.''
choAt the time of a recent visit, the center was holding 460 males and females, most from Central America. At the Laredo processing center, three young Latin Americans, a Colombian, a Honduran, and a Brazilian, agreed in unison that they would probably try again. In Port Isabel, a woman from Belize said a lack of jobs in her country would give her no alternative but to come back.
Later that month, border agents working a Texas highway north of the Rio Grande Valley pulled over a suspiciously overloaded van. It's passengers included 20 Guyanans who claimed to have paid $4,000 each to be smuggled through Mexico to New York City. ``OTMs'' -- other than Mexicans as the INS terms ``It's the kind of action that the mobile community learns about quickly,'' he adds., despite his bitterness over lost work time, --30--