Mexico is Global Turnstile to U.S.
More non-Mexicans are crossing border
March 26, 2006
By Bruce Finley
Photo: Police and migration agents try to dislodge Central Americans from the top of a cargo train in the Mexican town of Tenosique, near the Guatemalan border, March 13. There is a surging transit of Central Americans through Mexico en route to the U.S. (KRT / Eliseo Mendez)
U.S. agents along the southwestern border increasingly catch illegal immigrants from throughout the world - not just from Mexico - as they try to slip into the country.
Some come from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries U.S. officials regard as hotbeds of terrorism. Many more may enter undetected.
New data obtained by The Denver Post show that Border Patrol agents over the past five months caught 46,058 non-Mexican migrants along the 2,000- mile U.S.-Mexico border, up 12 percent from the 40,953 caught during the same period last year.
Annual apprehensions have increased fivefold since 2002, with 155,000 non-Mexican migrants caught last year, according to government data from congressional and other sources.
The widening flood of illegal immigration raises security concerns as Congress debates how to fix an immigration system all sides see as broken.
Agents "haven't encountered a terrorist crossing the southwest border at this point. But we're concerned about the possibility," said Dean Boyd, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
There's no way to know how many illegal immigrants enter undetected. The latest estimates based on census surveys show 850,000 people a year enter illegally, more than double the influx in the early 1990s - despite a decade of beefing up border enforcement.
EASY PATH FOR TERRORISTS
In Denver, growing numbers of undocumented asylum-seekers from Somalia, Ethiopia and elsewhere tell social workers of harrowing passages through multiple countries before sneaking in from Mexico.
Photo: Migrants from Guatemala and El Salvador wait for daylight at a rail station in Tapachula, Mexico, in January. Then, they will walk 150 miles to Arriaga to hop a train to the U.S. (KRT / Janet Schwartz)
They sometimes "get lost in the mix" of unauthorized job-seekers, said Regina Germain, legal director at the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center in Denver.
Having a system that can help asylum-seekers, as well as ensure security, is an imperative "that goes back to our very roots," Germain said. "The people who founded our country were fleeing persecution."
On the security front, the United States remains vulnerable, despite post-Sept. 11, 2001, efforts, and terrorists easily could infiltrate, said T.J. Bonner, president of the union that represents Border Patrol agents.
The data show "just the ones we catch; a lot of people get by us," Bonner said, estimating that border guards catch 25 percent to 33 percent of illegal border- crossers. "The borders remain out of control." Congress is debating proposals such as deploying hundreds more border guards and using more motion detectors, surveillance cameras and aerial drones, along with allowing more legal foreign workers and possibly granting amnesty to 12 million illegal immigrants already here.
But the government already has been increasing the number of Border Patrol agents steadily from 4,000 in 1993 to 11,300 today, and the agency's budget more than tripled from about $380 million to $1.4 billion.
Bonner and others contend that further intensifying border enforcement is futile unless the government also cracks down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"Take away the reason most people are coming in the first place," Bonner said.
Former government demographer Jeff Passell, now with the Pew Hispanic Center, says surging non-Mexican illegal immigration "is a phenomenon we haven't figured out a way to stop, or even to control."
"There's every indication these people are coming here to work. ... And we haven't put in place anything to deal with the jobs magnet which is attracting people," he said. "The flattening world makes it easier for people to get close to the United States. People who might have come on tourist visas in the past now may be getting to Mexico and Canada."
CAUGHT, THEN LET GO
Non-Mexican migrants caught entering the United States illegally in fiscal years 2002 to 2005 came mostly from Central America and Brazil. Also among them were: Iranians (95), Iraqis (74), Pakistanis (660), Syrians (52), Yemenis (40), Egyptians (106) and Lebanese (91).
Those figures cover all ports of entry. Along the southwestern border, non-Mexican migrants caught from 2002 to 2004 - the latest years for which data could be obtained - included Pakistanis (113), Egyptians (41), Jordanians (55), Iranians (39), Iraqis (22), Yemenis (15) and Saudis (13).
They are from among 35 "special-interest" nations the State Department lists as hotbeds for terrorism. U.S. officials increasingly restrict visas for travelers from these nations.
Even when non-Mexican migrants are caught, some are released into the United States with notices to appear in immigration court for lack of jail bed space. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has vowed to end that practice on the southwestern border this year. Immigration authorities are trying to deport non-Mexican migrants more quickly. Mexico refuses to take them back, and U.S. agents must fly them home if their countries will accept them.
The concern experts raise is that beefed-up border patrols now force determined migrants to rely on increasingly sophisticated global smuggling networks to get them through undetected. This business is booming, with networks proliferating, drawing in drug-crime cartels and transnational gangs.
Violence is up - attacks on Border Patrol agents topped 700 last year - further encouraging reliance on smugglers. A recent FBI intelligence bulletin warned that one smuggling kingpin "has instructed his employees to shoot at" U.S. border agents. All this favors terrorists who easily could use smuggling networks to enter, said Walter Ewing, a researcher at the Immigration Policy Institute.
"The best way to enhance security would be to take labor migration out of the equation. If we were channeling workers from abroad through legal channels, border-control resources could be channeled towards catching potential terrorists as opposed to just tracking down job- seekers," Ewing said.
If Congress could reduce the number of illegal job-seekers, he said, "terrorists would find it more difficult to hide among the masses of undocumented aliens."
"And they wouldn't be able to rely on such good smuggling networks because the market for those networks would be undercut," Ewing said. Congressional leaders in the past have considered proposals to introduce fraud-proof IDs and hold employers responsible for screening out illegal workers.
"It's hard to talk about closing down the border when, by and large, immigrants who come to this country are working. And who are they working for? Small firms. Large firms. It's pretty pervasive," said Audrey Singer, immigration specialist at the Brookings Institution.
Illegal immigrants occupy nearly 5 percent of U.S. jobs, Passell, of the Pew Hispanic Center, found in a new study.
And removing the jobs magnet means "you have to give employers the tools, and then you have to hold them accountable," he said. "That means finding employers, prosecuting employers, and possibly putting some out of business.
"That's just not politically popular. It's the work that is drawing people here. If you don't deal with that, it's hard to think how you can control" illegal immigration.
Homeland Security teams have developed "a world-class identification card" that could help employers verify whether workers are here legally, said Emilio Gonzalez, Homeland Security's chief of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Today, "everyone can come up with 10 or 15 pieces of identification to prove they are legal. But quite frankly, employers have no idea what they are looking for," Gonzalez said.