Fewer attempt border hide-and-seek

The scene on the outskirts of Douglas could be something out of cold-war Europe. There is the wall - taller than two grown men - rising dark and monstrous from a 200-yard-wide border zone stripped of vegetation.

There are the agents, sitting in their white-and-green Border Patrol SUVs, watching. A dozen feet above them, klieg lights designed to turn the desert darkness into day cast spectral shadows across the lunarlike landscape.

It is the ultimate game of hide-and-seek. And as of late, it seems that fewer would-be immigrants are playing. After 13 years of virtual nonstop increase, the number of people slipping across the US-Mexico border is suddenly falling - a trend with important implications for countries on both sides of the dusty divide.

In the four months from October through January, arrests of illegal immigrants along the US-Mexico border dropped 22 percent.

Theories to explain the drop vary - from the unusually cold, wet weather this winter to the fact that many Mexicans are feeling a renewed sense of hope about their homeland with the rise of new President Vicente Fox. But interviews and anecdotes from both sides of the border in Douglas suggest that the increasing presence of Border Patrol and their green-and-white trucks may be playing a major prohibitive role.

While experts and immigration officials caution that it's too soon to say the data represent a turning point in America's crusade to control its borders, the decline is significant. "There's no question that it's becoming more difficult to cross the border," says Frank Bean, a demographer at the University of California at Irvine.

The numbers borderwide are surprising. For years, the trend of arrests has been invariably upward. From 1992 to 2000, the number of apprehensions rose from 1.1 million a year to 1.6 million. There were brief periods of decline - but this was the first to occur during the holiday season, when many immigrants cross to visit their families. During this most recent four-month period, arrests dropped by more than 90,000 to 330,000.

Here in Arizona, the downturn was even more acute. Just a year ago, the largest sector of the Arizona border set a record for apprehensions, with roughly 70,000 in the month of February alone. In recent months, Douglas saw the largest decline of any region, with arrests falling 39 percent.

Ask people in this town of 15,000 why that's happened, and their reactions are nearly unanimous: a beefier Border Patrol. "Absolutely," says a retired bookkeeper who refused to give her name, speaking through her security door. "I used to see 20 people a week coming through. Now, I don't see any."

Since 1993, the ranks of the Border Patrol have swelled from 4,000 to more than 9,200 - and recruiting continues. On a recent day, 21 Border Patrol vehicles could be spotted on the drive from Tucson to Douglas.

The bookkeeper welcomes the help. Her brick home four miles north of Douglas is a monument to local fears. It is surrounded by a 10-foot chain-link fence topped with concertina wire, and as the lady speaks, her alarm system screeches: "Intrusion, Sensor 3!"

On the other side of the wall that runs though Douglas, the scene is different, but the stories are the same. In fact, Agua Prieta is strangely calm for a city that is supposed to be a hub for illegal immigration. Even car traffic seems less than usual.

On Calle 3, a road three blocks from the border, young men congregate around a hot-dog vendor. Octavio Romero, a man with a wispy black mustache, says he heads north less frequently. "I still go to the United States about two times each month to work construction in Phoenix," he says. "It is hard, but people still cross." His friends nod their heads, and one adds that they "don't try to cross as much as before."

It's a trend that demographers such as Dr. Bean have been seeing for some time. Even as the number of border arrests has grown, there has been a decline in repeat offenders. More and more, people are staying on one side or the other for longer.

That's true of Roberto Ortiz, who leans on the front desk of the Hotel Tania in Agua Prieta, a red ballcap pushed low on his forehead. "I used to go to Chicago to work," he says. "Now, I don't go anymore. It is too hard now … because of more police."

Not everyone, though, agrees that the Border Patrol is having such a great effect. Indeed, some critics say it has focused on cities like Douglas to the detriment of more rural areas. "The apprehensions are directly related to how you deploy your forces," says Ron Sanders, former head of the Tucson Sector, who resigned in 1999, saying he disagreed with the organization's new direction. "When you pull your forces into a very limited area, obviously the individuals are just going to go around you."

Critics believe the concentration of so many agents may have had a more ominous impact. A study by the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research says the number of immigrant deaths on the US side of the border rose from 231 in 1999 to 369 last year. The study cites beefed-up enforcement, which pushed immigrants into isolated terrain, as a cause.

Experts do see other reasons for the current decline in people coming across the border. The election of Mr. Fox has produced a renewed sense of hope among many Mexicans. The economy, too, has been doing better. "Because of this, the pressure to immigrate to the US in search of productive work has diminished," says Thomas Fullerton, an economist at the University of Texas at El Paso.

If the downward trend continues - and even the INS is uncertain it will - it could have profound effects on both sides of the border. The high level of illegal immigration has always been an irritant in neighborly relations. But, while US workers have enduring job fears that could deepen during a recession, many employers rely on illegal immigrants as a source of labor in everything from fast food and construction to New Economy service jobs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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