Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Arizona Daily Sun Stream of immigrants likely to shift to Texas

Arizona Daily Sun
Stream of immigrants likely to shift to Texas

Associated Press Writer
PHOENIX -- A young woman is forced to leave her 7-month-old daughter behind as collateral while she tries to come up with money to pay migrant smugglers holding the baby's grandmother.
A Mexican man watches helplessly as relatives and friends succumb to triple-digit heat after being led into an isolated stretch of desert by smugglers; 14 migrants die.

Dozens of illegal immigrants are jammed into homes where they are often assaulted and extorted by the people they paid to bring them here.

These examples of violence and misery highlight the consequences of the illegal immigrant trade that drives so much crime in Arizona, the busiest illegal crossing point along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now that the federal government has launched a massive immigration crackdown in the state, smugglers are expected to find other spots along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border to focus their efforts, adding to those areas' immigration problems as a result.

"If you squeeze a balloon in the middle, it will expand in some other place," said Dennis Smith, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Del Rio, Texas.

The heavy flow of illegal immigrants that has dogged Arizona in recent years has already shifted somewhat to New Mexico and is expected to move to Texas, targeting a central corridor along the Rio Grande, experts and some local officials said.

It's not clear whether the clampdown will push more illegal crossings into California.

Experts said the crackdown may deter some would-be crossers, but illegal workers will continue to come here as long as they can make more in an hour in the United States than they could in a whole day at home.

Smugglers who earn $1,500 to $5,000 for each customer will also continue to find remote and dangerous migration routes where enforcement is weaker, a tactic that contributes to hundreds of deaths each year, experts said.

This isn't the first time migration patterns have shifted. Immigrants funneled into Arizona when the government tightened enforcement in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego during the mid-1990s, leading to a mass of problems for Phoenix and the state.

A new shift has already begun into southwestern New Mexico. Police in the Lordsburg area, where immigrant apprehensions have doubled over the last year, attribute the influx largely to stronger enforcement in Arizona.

"We have always had (illegal immigration), but they know that Arizona is closed, so they are coming here," said Lordsburg police Chief John McDonald.

The Arizona crackdown also will likely push more illegal crossings into the stretch of Texas border between Del Rio and Laredo, said Texas Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief credited with dramatically reducing illegal crossings in the El Paso metro area in the 1990s.

The likelihood of a shift into California is less clear.

Border Patrol officials said it's premature to say whether the Arizona crackdown is fueling a rise in immigrant apprehensions in San Diego and at other points in the Southwest.

The increases began late last year and are probably caused by economics and other factors, they said.

The Arizona buildup isn't affecting immigrant traffic in southeastern California, where arrests are down, said David Kim, spokesman for the Border Patrol's El Centro office.

But Christian Ramirez, who oversees immigrant programs for the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, said the crackdown caused some immigrants who crossed into far southwestern Arizona to later sneak into California as they head north.

Mario Villarreal, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C., said the Southwest will experience a shift, but he wouldn't pinpoint future hot spots.

The shift's full extent and effects on border communities and nearby interior cities aren't yet clear. Villarreal said the government has the flexibility to move resources to where they are needed.

More federal agents and monitoring equipment were brought to Arizona in response to problems the state has faced since becoming the favored crossing point for illegal immigrants in recent years.

More than 40 percent of the 340 migrant deaths along the Southwest border last year were in Arizona. Ranchers complain that immigrants damage their fences and litter land with water bottles and other debris.

Police said kidnappings and killings tied to smuggling rose last year in Phoenix, a hub for transporting illegal immigrants to different spots across the country.

The high profits and low overhead of the illicit business were so attractive that smugglers started kidnapping rival smugglers' customers so their families in Mexico, Central America or elsewhere could be extorted.

Last year's most violent turf dispute, a shooting involving two moving vehicles on Interstate 10 south of Phoenix, left four people dead and several more wounded.

The perils sometimes extended to people who had no ties to smuggling. A small number of families were victims of unsuccessful roadway abduction attempts because, police said, they were Hispanics driving in the types of vehicles favored by smugglers, such as vans.

As smuggling violence soared, the federal government launched a crackdown on smugglers late last year similar to ones used against organized crime. Officials said it lowered crime rates in Phoenix and forced smugglers to move parts of their operations to other cities, such as Los Angeles.

Still, people continued crossing illegally into Arizona, so the border offensive that's bringing in more manpower and technology was launched in March.

It will likely cause migrant deaths to decline in Arizona and rise elsewhere if the crackdown remains strong, said Nestor Rodriguez, co-director of the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research.

It's not known if the total number will drop across the Southwest, said Rodriguez, whose center has studied border deaths since the mid-1990s. An average of 340 immigrants died in each of the last four years, according to government figures.

The types of deaths could shift. More people could drown in rivers and suffer heat exposure while crossing dense brush in south Texas, Rodriguez said.

"It's a very unfriendly area for people who don't know the terrain," said Rodriguez. He wasn't sure how the shift will affect deaths in New Mexico and California.

Advocates on both ends of the debate said tighter security alone won't solve the country's immigration problems.

The economy needs to improve in Mexico, where the minimum wage is about $4 a day. Even though there's no strong political will for it now, the United States also must change in its policies, they said.

Advocates for limiting immigration said the government must remove incentives for illicit crossings by going after businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

Immigrant supporters said the United States should make it legal for would-be crossers to work here temporarily and let their families visit.

"The pull of those who work here and live here is strong, and it will trump whatever we do otherwise," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum. "It's just basic human nature to build a better life and to be with the people you love."


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