The weeks leading up to Christmas are always a slow time for Border Patrol units monitoring the Rio Grande. This is the season, after all, when illegal immigrants usually head south to see relatives back home, rather than north to seek jobs.
But there's something different about this year's winter lull, says Frank Lopez, a Border Patrol supervisor in the Brownsville station. Apprehensions of undocumented immigrants throughout south Texas have dropped a whopping 27 percent in the past three months, an indication that the Border Patrol's buildup of manpower and technology this fall is starting to pay off.
"We have pretty much stopped crossings into the downtown area, not completely, but we've slowed it down quite a bit," says Mr. Lopez, as he drives past a row of diesel-powered stadium lights that illumine the once-dark banks of the Rio Grande River.
For agents here, the small victories brought by Operation Rio Grande are cause for celebration. But as in many border communities, where Hispanics outnumber Anglos 9 to 1, the initiative has also added new sparks to an old emotional debate.
Some residents would like to see even more agents along the border, while others decry what they see as a simple cops-and-robbers approach to trying to resolve a complex problem. At the same time, there is concern that the crackdown in Texas is pushing illegals to enter the US in more remote areas.
Like similar efforts in San Diego, El Paso, and Nogales, Ariz., the multimillion-dollar operation here has helped the Border Patrol to hire 300 more agents. It has bought everything from computer databases to military-style infrared cameras to help maintain control along one of the most porous sections of the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.
From the viewpoint of immigration officers, Operation Rio Grande has yielded impressive results. Prosecutions are up 75 percent at the area's legal crossing points, showing that many illegals prefer to cross there with false documents and take their chances with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"With additional resources, the Border Patrol has been able to make a tremendous dent in illegal entries," says Art Moreno, an INS spokesman in Harlingen, Texas. "Now they're testing the system to find out what avenue will work best in the future. A lot are going west to the more isolated areas, and a lot are heading over the bridge with fraudulent documents."
This is where the Border Patrol's new computer database comes in handy. Called IDENT, the database allows Border Patrol and INS officers to store and share photos, fingerprints, and names of previous offenders all along the border. The effectiveness of this system was shown vividly one night last week, as Border Patrol officers brought in a truckload of recently captured immigrants from the western sector of the Brownsville border.
Most of the illegals, sitting glumly with their arms crossed, turned out to be Mexicans (one young man in a mud-flecked T-shirt had come all the way from Honduras). But one burly fellow with a wispy beard and a broad smile turned out to be something of a frequent flier. He had given a false name, but the computer recognized his fingerprints. All except the Honduran were returned to Mexico within an hour.
"That number follows him where he goes," says Jesse Arellano, a Border Patrol officer, pointing to the photo on a computer screen, showing that the Mexican national seated nearby was last apprehended a month ago in another border town. "So if this guy gets caught in California, they'll have his identification on the database," and the agency will have a better idea how many illegals are coming across the border.
While cheering these technological advances, some advocates of immigration reform complain that the INS, which administers the Border Patrol, has taken too long to show whether this additional funding along the border is having a measurable effect.
"It's been over four years since we approved legislation to double the INS budget," says Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House immigration subcommittee. "It seems that by now we ought to know what we are getting in terms of increased deportations and increased apprehensions. I assume we are making progress, but it would be nice to know how much."
For Brownsville merchants, the additional Border Patrol officers riding bicycles through the downtown area have already had a significant effect, cutting down on juvenile crime and shoplifting.
"We used to have a lot of juveniles come in and steal small items, but not anymore," says Sandra Chavez, a clerk at a small gift shop in downtown Brownsville. And while some residents predicted that Mexican nationals would be too intimidated by the increased Border Patrol presence to risk shopping in the US, Ms. Chavez says, the sales are down because of the weak peso, not because of agents on mountain bikes.
Operation Rio Grande has thus far avoided the inevitable complaints of harassment of US citizens of Latino descent that have plagued similar operations in other border cities.
BUT immigrant-rights groups say they're keeping a close eye on the McAllen sector, which includes Brownsville, to be sure the operation doesn't get heavy-handed.
"Whenever you have an operation of this size ... you're going to have US citizens get caught up by mistake," says Cindy Cano of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Antonio. "And those who are affected most are going to be Latino, because of their appearance and their names. But who knows, maybe the reason we haven't heard any complaints thus far is because they're being more careful."
Some residents call for a more bilateral approach to the immigration problem, perhaps including short-term work visas. This approach is not unprecedented. The US offered six-month work visas to Mexican nationals under the Bracero program a few decades ago, and the US currently provides short-term visas under a similar program for Irish citizens.
"I understand it is not fair to be paying taxes so that people from other countries can come here and have the same services as you [have]," says a Mexican national who is residing legally in the US. "But most of these people come here to work. What would happen to the economy of this country if they stopped letting these people come in?"
But for Officer Lopez, the border is likely to be a busy place as long as there is an economic incentive for Mexicans and others to flee the poverty of home for the promise of prosperity up north.
"Unless the government decides to put a fence from Brownsville to San Diego ... and put a man every 50 yards, there's no way to stop them," he says.