After nearly four years of decline, apprehensions of undocumented immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border are rising sharply - which may indicate a new wave of illegal immigration.
The sudden spike is raising new concerns about homeland security, competition for American jobs, and worries of more deaths along the border. There is concern, too, that a flood of immigrants could stymie President Bush's plan, made public earlier this year, for a possible "guest worker" program: As migrants rush across simply on rumor, opposition to the Bush proposal could increase.
In the most recent six-month period, apprehensions along the roughly 2,000-mile southern border - one gauge of the level of illegal immigration - rose 25 percent over the same period a year ago. In some high-traffic areas, such as the Tucson sector, apprehensions were up 60 percent. Analysts see several - sometimes conflicting - reasons:
• Drought and economic hardship in many parts of Mexico are pushing more illegals to seek jobs in the US at a time when the US economy is finally starting to pick up.
• The president's proposal to give legal status to undocumented migrants already working in the US may be encouraging more to come, hoping for some amnesty in the future.
• Beefed-up border-patrol personnel, coupled with new technology, is leading to more arrests, which may or may not reflect a new wave of illegal immigration.
"We see it as a sign that the job's getting done," says Andy Adame, a spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection's Tucson sector.
Still, a quiet anxiety is brewing among government officials on both sides of the border, human-rights and immigrant advocates, and those who favor tougher immigration laws. The result is a rush to figure out what has changed and how to explain it during an election year. If the trend continues and fuels a backlash, Bush may be forced to reconsider his position on a possible guest-worker plan.
Traditionally, the number of apprehensions spikes in the first months of the year, when illegal immigrants return after spending the holidays with their families in Mexico. But the rush has not yet slowed, or even leveled off. And the jump could also herald a record year for migrant deaths - already higher than last year at this time.
For their part, officials at the US Customs and Border Protection say the reason the numbers are up is because of enhanced enforcement. One example: Along the Arizona border where the situation is most critical and thousands cross daily, an additional 200 officers have been added since last year. And more are coming.
Under a new $10 million initiative announced in March, the embattled Arizona border will receive another 110 agents, dozens of new motion detectors, four new helicopters, and the first-ever unmanned aircraft to patrol the desert.
This new technology makes agents more effective, says Mr. Adame of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector. Prior to the unmanned aircraft, for instance, if something tripped a sensor in the desert - whether a person or animal - an agent might have had to hike for hours to reach that location. But as of June, the aircraft will simply fly overhead and take photographs that are transmitted back to an agent, who can then decide whether to make the trek.
In addition, a new level of cooperation among federal, state, and local agencies is creating a more efficient Border Patrol, says Adame. One example: An agent who stopped a vehicle with illegal immigrants was once required to leave his patrol in order to impound the vehicle. Now, a state or local law-enforcement official has the authority to impound a vehicle, allowing the border-patrol agent to continue searching for and apprehending immigrants.
Adame and others, such as Robert Bonner, the US Customs and Border Protection commissioner, downplay the idea that immigrants are crossing the border because of the possibility of a guest-worker program - even though agents don't ask immigrants why they're coming.
For one thing, says Adame, border-patrol intelligence has found that the numbers of those coming to the US/Mexico border are roughly the same as they were last year. What is different is the number of apprehensions, he says, signaling better enforcement.
Robin Hoover, head of Humane Borders, disagrees with Adame's analysis, and points to bad economic times in Mexico as a pivotal factor.
For the past several years, his immigrant-relief group has been monitoring Altar, Mexico - the largest staging area for migrants illegally entering the United States. The highest arrival number he's heard for a single day has been 1,750. But 2,600 migrants came one day recently.
"That's when we knew things were really moving this year," says the Reverend Hoover. He admits that tougher enforcement on the US side of the border could be adding to the number of apprehensions, but says this year has seen more drought and tougher economics times in parts of Mexico - forcing more people north.
"I don't agree that immigrants are rushing over here to get amnesty. Whenever I ask them about it, they don't even know what I'm talking about," he says.
But any mention of amnesty does tend to affect the number of attempted border crossings. For instance, rates of illegal immigration rose in 1986 when an amnesty was announced, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration policies "But is there going to be a permanent explosion in illegal immigration? No," he says. "It's more likely to create spurts and blips."
Where rumors of Bush's proposed guest-worker program may have a greater impact, he says, is on the numbers of illegal immigrants who are staying in the US in hopes that they will qualify. "There is no question it is having an effect," says Mr. Krikorian. "But how big it is, who knows? We don't have enough facts yet."
Whatever their position, those who follow the issue say immigration numbers will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, creeping up for the first time in four years.