Mexicans turned back at border for not renewing old visas

By Lynn Brezosky Associated Press Writer
Tuesday October 02, 2001

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — About 2 million Mexicans failed to convert their border-crossing cards into new high-tech IDs by the Oct. 1 deadline, and hundreds were turned back Monday when they tried to get into the United States. 

Some said they were unaware of the cutoff date for getting the new “laser visas,” while others lacked the proper documents or said they had been expecting the U.S. government to grant an extension, as some members of Congress have requested. 

The new ID cards are required for short trips along the 1,962-mile-long U.S.-Mexican boundary in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. 

But news of the policy change didn’t reach Maria Isabel Gallegos, 66, a Tijuana, Mexico resident who was turned away as she tried to cross the border in San Diego, preventing her from visiting a sick daughter in the United States. 

“I hope they’ll give me one soon,” Gallegos said. 

Inspectors at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, the world’s busiest border crossing, barred 25 Mexicans from entering the United States between 6 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in San Diego. 

The number turned back was a tiny fraction of the 130,000 people who cross each day at the San Diego border, which has been under heightened security since the Sept. 11 attacks. 

“We were relieved to see the word seemed to get out to most folks,” Mack said. 

The change presented an inconvenience for some. Isabel Lopez Flores, 66, traveled 4 1/2 hours from the interior town of Aldama, Mexico, so she could go to JC Penney in the Texas border town McAllen to buy a new pair of glasses. 

“They told me this wasn’t good anymore. I had no idea,” Flores said, shocked, as she held up her passport. 

One Texas entry point had turned away about 200 people since midnight, border officials said. 

In Arizona, about 100 people were turned back from the state’s seven ports of entry during the first half of the day, said Russell Ahr, Immigration and Naturalization Service deputy district director. 

“The awareness of the new card is greater than we probably expected, and the inconvenience has been minimal,” Ahr said. 

Congress mandated the use of the new cards in 1996 but has extended the deadline at least twice. 

About 5.5 million of the old permits, which look like a driver’s license, were issued. The new ones arrive 60 to 90 days after they are applied for and feature fingerprints and data encrypted in magnetic strips, which officials hope can prevent fraud and forgery. 

Not all border points have equipment to read the new cards. In San Diego, inspectors pass the visas through a scanner that can provide basic data about the immigrant. But the port still doesn’t have the machines that can call up a digital version of the person’s photo and fingerprint. 

The cards permit Mexicans to enter the United States and travel within 25 miles of the border for up to 72 hours at a time, and are important to cities like San Diego and McAllen, where merchants depend on business from Mexico. 

The State Department, which issues the cards, has asked Congress to extend the deadline again, but lawmakers have yet to vote on it. Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairmen of the House and Senate immigration subcommittees, support another extension. 

In a letter marked urgent and sent to President Bush on Saturday, Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, predicted “a major disruption in the commerce of the entire southern border” if an extension was not granted. He said the lack of equipment made such an order especially important.