Report: Tight border led to more illegal immigrants

By Ben Fox, The Associated Press
Wednesday July 17, 2002

SAN DIEGO — A costly, nine-year effort to seal portions of the U.S.-Mexico border has failed to reduce illegal immigration, a new study has found. 

The security buildup along the Southwest border also has forced immigrants to cross in dangerous, remote areas, increasing the likelihood of death from exposure and drowning. In addition, it may cause those who enter the country illegally to stay longer, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California. 

“The border buildup alone doesn’t solve this problem,” Belinda Reyes, an economist who co-authored the study, said Tuesday. 

Activists on both of the immigration issue have made similar claims in the past, but the institute’s study bases its claims on updated Census data along with information from focus groups and a community survey. The authors planned to present their findings to Democratic members of Congress on Wednesday. 

The study bills itself as the most comprehensive analysis of the a border crackdown that began in 1993 with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego in 1994. 

Prompted by public concerns over the relative ease of crossing the border, Congress and the Clinton administration approved the hiring of thousands of additional Border Patrol agents and had new fences, lights, motion sensors and other equipment installed in the most-heavily traversed corridors. 

The annual border enforcement budget tripled between 1995 and 2001 and now exceeds $2.5 billion, according to the report from the nonpartisan policy institute. 

As a result, the numbers of illegal immigrants crossing in cities such as San Diego, El Paso or Brownsville plummeted while they soared in the mountains and deserts in between. 

The policy institute, relying on Census data, found the overall number of illegal immigrants has continued to rise, growing from between 2 million and 3 million in the mid-1980s to between 6 million and 10 million today. 

Mexican immigrants, according to a survey by their government, were more likely to stay in the United States because of the increased risk and cost of crossing the border. A 2000 survey found 11 percent of recent immigrants returned to Mexico within a year compared to 30 percent in 1992, according to the report. 

The availability of jobs in the United States had a “far stronger” effect on illegal immigration than increased border enforcement, the report found. 

The Border Patrol defends its strategy, noting the decline in apprehensions over the past three years as evidence that fewer people are crossing the border. Agency officials say the U.S. government isn’t to blame for the deaths of hundreds of immigrants from drowning and exposure to heat and cold. 

“It’s not the national strategy that moving them, it’s the smugglers who are taking them through treacherous points for financial gain,” said Mario Villarreal, a spokesman in Washington D.C. 

The Border Patrol also maintains that many illegal immigrants enter the country illegally and overstay their visas, said Ben Bauman, an agent in San Diego. 

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. said the policy institute’s report underscores the “schizophrenic” U.S. immigration policy focused on border control. 

“Our immigration policy features tough border enforcement but no enforcement in the interior,” Krikorian said. “We’re telling illegal aliens that if you get in we are not going to bother you.”