Illegal border crossings plunge amid security
BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS — Two months ago at the Bushes' first state dinner, Mexican President Vicente Fox and his wife, Martha, dined on crab with chorizo pozole and mango ice cream drizzled with chili sauce.
Hundreds of key limes adorned the white-flower centerpieces. President Bush, clad in a tuxedo and shiny black cowboy boots, dubbed his residence the "Casa Blanca" in honor of his Mexican guests.
What a difference a day makes.
That fiesta of an evening and the rapid progress being made between the two countries, from immigration to trade to the environment, is now stalled (some say dead) after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
Security along the US border is at an all-time high, and talk of amnesty for illegal Mexican immigrants has halted. Leaders are backpedaling on increased benefits to the undocumented, and they're moving to clamp down on foreign visas.
And in the middle is left the millions of undocumented Mexicans, those who allowed the idea of amnesty to twinkle in their eyes like sequins on an evening dress.
It's on the streets of Houston and Phoenix and Los Angeles that they wait for word. They wonder how long they can suffer the US's economic downturn and how they will cross the beefed-up border after spending the holidays in Mexico.
Most are not willing to give up just yet. "We still have hope," says Sergio Cuevas, an undocumented Mexican, before work recently in Houston. "Fox and Bush were such good friends. And both countries seemed really willing to help one other. Life is different, and we have to accept that."
Mr. Cuevas is one of millions of immigrants who, for the time being, are staying put. He will not be returning to Mexico to visit family for Christmas this year because "the entire border is full of soldiers."
While the border is certainly on high alert, the Border Patrol is not being overworked. The agency hasn't even had to increase its number of agents yet. "Nothing has changed for us," says Border Patrol agent Carlos Quevedo in Brownsville.
Officials along the 2,100-mile border say apprehensions in October were half what they were last year. While those numbers have begun to creep up (especially for drug seizures), the situation is far from normal.
In south Texas, for instance, alien apprehensions are down by 30 percent and drug seizures by 20 percent. That's because fewer people are attempting to cross, well aware of the tighter security. In addition, many of those already here illegally aren't risking the trip home and the chance of getting caught on the way back.
Still, the Border Patrol's busiest time is just after the holidays when immigrants return to the US, so numbers from January and February will be better indicators of how the attacks have affected immigration.
But experts agree that this drop in illegal crossings is only a temporary situation - largely because of Mexico's worsening economy. "The situation is more difficult there," says Mizraim, a teenager who came to Houston a year ago from Mexico.
Mizraim, who asked that only his first name be used, is working fewer hours than before the attacks because of the slowdown in construction - but he is not considering returning to Mexico.
His life here is far better than it was in Mexico, and he will also not risk visiting family for Christmas.
This uneasiness is echoed by others at the Mexican consulate in Houston. Many nationals come here to get a Mexican ID card before returning home. The consulate usually processes 300 to 350 cards a day by the end of November, but, so far, it is giving out only 60 to 70.
To better understand the mood, the embassy here recently took a poll of local Mexicans and found that 70 percent of them said they are not changing their holiday plans because of the terrorist attacks.
They did, however, plan to change the length of their stay or find alternate routes back into the US. Only five percent said they are considering going back to Mexico permanently.
"When Sept. 11 came, we realized it was a completely and utterly new ballgame and that the No. 1 priority of the US was security," says Consul General Enrique Buj Flores, sitting under a portrait of Pancho Villa. "But the US is still the most open, most attractive society in the world."
And that means a solution to illegal immigration is still needed, says Mr. Buj. "It's just going to take a little bit longer."
Last week, two top Mexican officials traveled to Washington to find out where the immigration agreement stood and how much of it can be salvaged. After the meeting, White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer said the agreement "is not dead." But the pace - and focus - has certainly changed.
"It's politically too much of a hot potato for either president to be discussing right now," says Wayne Label, director of the Center for the Study of Western Hemispheric Trade at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.
His center recently hosted a forum on amnesty, and he says the general feeling was that the issue is as important as ever.
"We still have 7 million undocumented immigrants in the US, and we have to face up to the fact that they're not going home," says Dr. Label. "Amnesty may be dead, but we need to find some alternative."