SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Border Patrol is moving to halt a revolving-door policy of sending migrants back to Mexico without any punishment.
The agency this month is overhauling its approach on migrants caught illegally crossing the 1,954-mile border that the United States shares with Mexico. Years of enormous growth at the federal agency in terms of staff and technology have helped drive down apprehensions of migrants to 40-year lows.
The Border Patrol now feels it has enough of a handle to begin imposing more serious consequences on almost everyone it catches from Texas to San Diego. The "Consequence Delivery System" divides border crossers into seven categories, ranging from first-time offenders to people with criminal records.
Punishments vary by region but there is a common thread: simply turning people around after taking their fingerprints is the choice of last resort. Some, including children and the medically ill, will still get a free pass by being turned around at the nearest border crossing, but they will be few and far between.
"What we want to be able to do is make that the exception and not necessarily the norm," Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher told the Associated Press.
Consequences can be severe for detained migrants and expensive to American taxpayers, including felony prosecution or being taken to an unfamiliar border city hundreds of miles away to be sent back to Mexico. One tool used during summers in Arizona involves flying migrants to Mexico City, where they get one-way bus tickets to their hometowns. Another releases them to Mexican authorities for prosecution south of the border. One puts them on buses to return to Mexico in another border city that may be hundreds of miles away.
The new tactics are part of the Border Patrol's new national strategy that is to be announced within weeks, and follow several changes along the border in recent years.
The number of agents since 2004 has more than doubled to 21,000. The Border Patrol has blanketed one-third of the border with fences and other physical barriers, and spent heavily on cameras, sensors and other gizmos. Major advances in fingerprinting technology have vastly improved intelligence on border-crossers. In the 2011 fiscal year, border agents made 327,577 apprehensions on the Mexican border, down 80 percent from more than 1.6 million in 2000. It was the Border Patrol's slowest year since 1971.
It's a far cry from just a few years ago. Older agents remember being so overmatched that they powerlessly watched migrants cross illegally, minutes after catching them and dropping them off at the nearest border crossing. Chief Fisher, who joined the Border Patrol in 1987, recalls apprehending the same migrant 10 times in his eight-hour shift as a young agent.
In the past, migrants caught in Douglas, Ariz., were given a bologna sandwich and orange juice before being taken back to Mexico at the same location on the same afternoon, Chief Fisher said. Now, they may spend the night at an immigration detention facility near Phoenix and eventually return to Mexico through Del Rio, Texas, more than 800 miles away.
Those migrants are effectively cut off from the smugglers who helped them cross the border, whose typical fees have skyrocketed to between $3,200 and $3,500 and are increasingly demanding payment up front instead of after crossing, Chief Fisher said. At minimum, they will have to wait longer to try again as they raise money to pay another smuggler.
The new strategy was first introduced a year ago in the office at Tucson, Ariz., the patrol's busiest corridor for illegal crossings, and is being expanded on a larger scale.
Field supervisors ranked consequences on a scale from 1 to 5 using 15 different yardsticks, including the length of time since the person was last caught and per-hour cost for processing.
The long-standing practice of turning migrants straight around without any punishment, known as "voluntary returns," ranked least expensive, and least effective.