Mexican Economy Up, Border Arrests Down

ByJulie Watson

L A R E D O, Texas, Feb. 6, 2001 -- Arrests of illegal immigrants have droppedall along the Mexico-U.S. border in what experts say could be asign that Mexicans are staying home to enjoy a growing economy andrising hopes under the first opposition president in seven decades.

From October through January, detentions were down 22 percentover the same period a year ago. The decrease marked the largestpercentage drop since the U.S. Border Patrol started beefing up itspresence in 1993 to stop a growing tide of illegal immigrationacross the 2,100-mile border.

Even in January, when the numbers traditionally go up asundocumented workers return to their U.S. jobs after visiting theirhomeland for the holidays, agents caught 33 percent fewer peoplethan during the same period last year.

U.S. officials gave several possible reasons for the decrease,including increased patrols in some areas, better technology suchas ground sensors and infrared cameras, an advertising campaignabout the perils of crossing illegally and an unusually coldwinter.

But they also say some of the credit may go to the Mexicaneconomy — which is stronger than it has been in seven years — andto President Vicente Fox, who on July 2 ended the InstitutionalRevolutionary Party's 71-year grip on power.

Fox's election created a wave of hope among many Mexicans,especially the young who overwhelmingly voted for him and who makeup a large chunk of potential migrants. He took office Dec. 1.

"We've been hearing anecdotally that with the election of Fox,there seems to be a renewed hope in Mexico. Some people may bestaying in Mexico to see what happens," said Nicole Chulick,spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service inWashington.

"By midyear, we should have a better handle on whether to callit a trend or an anomaly."

Hope for No More Walls

Fox's administration says if it turns out to be a trend, itcould be just what the president needs to back up his controversialproposal to work toward evening out the economies of the UnitedStates and Mexico and eventually open up the border to people aswell as goods.

"In the long run, if the economies are equalized, we will notneed walls to detain the flow," said Hernando Duran, an officialon a Fox-created border commission. "Maybe we're starting to seewhat could happen 10 to 15 years from now — that people will stayput and won't want to go to the United States."

Juan Hernandez, Fox's coordinator for migrant affairs, saidFox's recent trips to the border to greet returning migrants andhis campaign to crack down on corrupt officials at the border haveencouraged many.

"I get letters and phone calls from Mexicans abroad saying,'I'd like to come home, if there is going to be a new Mexico."'

But, he acknowledged, many won't move back until they see anincrease in the minimum wage, currently less than $4 a day.

The decrease in apprehensions came after a decade of growth inimmigrant arrests along the border. From 1992 to 2000, the annualnumber of illegal immigrants arrested by the U.S. Border Patrolrose from 1.1 million to 1.6 million.

The biggest decrease along the border was around Douglas, Ariz.,where the number of people apprehended dropped 39 percent over thesame period last year. But part of that may be due to more than 200new border patrol agents who arrived, causing migrants to avoid thearea, and to reports of violence by vigilante groups that may havescared migrants away.

Ducks, Not Immigrants, on Rio Grande

But even in the Laredo, Texas, sector — where there was nosignificant change in enforcement — apprehensions dipped from30,422 to 19,306, a 35.6 percent drop.

On Monday afternoon, waterfowl filled the Rio Grande outsideLaredo as agents looked for illegal immigrants swimming across theriver, which marks the border. They spotted none.

Most of the movement was not on the ground, but above the river,where truck traffic flowed across a bridge opened to handleincreasing commerce brought on by the North American Free TradeAgreement.

Despite the quiet day, Supervisory Agent Preston Schleinkoferbrushed off reports of a slowdown.

"Out in the field, we don't get into statistics, we just chase'em," said the clean-shaven agent, 43, wearing a brown ranger'shat. "Talking about whether it's up or down is a moot point. Wejust do our job."

But if the figures do reflect that fewer are attempting tocross, agents say they must be doing something right.

"We're not calling it a complete success," said David Aguilar,chief of the Tucson, Ariz., sector, which includes Douglas. "We'recalling it a work in process."

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