The number of illegal aliens being apprehended on the southwestern border has jumped 25 percent in the first three months of 2004 compared with last year, and some are blaming President Bush’s immigration proposal in January for enticing immigrants across the border.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you the president’s speech was the catalyst for lots of folks to make their way north and try to get into this country in order to get what they accurately believe to be amnesty,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus.
The increase in apprehensions was driven by a spike within the two Arizona sectors, Yuma and Tucson, which saw increases of 60 percent and 51 percent, respectively.
And if apprehensions are increasing, so is the number of illegal aliens making it across the border freely, said Mr. Tancredo and current and former immigration law-enforcement officials, who said they assume for every one person caught, three make it across safely.
On Jan. 7, Mr. Bush proposed a guest-worker program that would, among other provisions, give perpetual temporary legal status to workers already in the United States. Mr. Bush says his plan doesn’t amount to an amnesty, but Mr. Tancredo said that’s how those in other countries see it.
“The rest of the world knows exactly what he said. A Mexican peasant in Chiapas interpreted it correctly,” he said.
Immigration is cyclical, and apprehensions along the southwestern border typically jump from December to January, when immigrants travel after the Christmas holiday, then remain high through the spring. But this year’s jump was markedly higher.
In the Yuma sector, for example, apprehensions jumped 114 percent from December 2002 to January 2003. But this past year, they jumped 222 percent from December to January.
For the three-month period overall, six of the nine southwestern sectors saw increases when compared with 2003, and three sectors saw decreases, including a 28 percent decrease from 37,297 to 26,999 in the El Centro sector in California.
The jump also has been sustained for the first three months. In Tucson, the busiest sector, 248,645 immigrants were apprehended from Jan. 1 through Wednesday, a 53 percent increase over the same period last year.
Mario Villarreal, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C., didn’t return a call for comment on the numbers.
Others, though, said economic factors are more important in drawing immigrants than the president’s proposal.
“The word may very well be around that you ought to try to get into the country because something may happen,” said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. “But that being said, the reasons for migration and the underlying economic factors that fuel it are much more fundamental and enduring than that kind of word.
“It is really a response not only to workers that are available in Mexico that are looking for better wages, but because of the demand in the United States,” said Mrs. Meissner, who is now at the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.
She said the news that U.S. employers added more than 300,000 jobs in March matters more than the president’s proposal.
And Nestor Rodriguez, a professor and co-director of the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston, said attributing the jump to the president’s policy “gives too much credit to the media in Latin America and Mexico.”
Mr. Rodriguez said he monitors Mexican radio and gets newspapers from the region and hasn’t seen very much coverage of Mr. Bush’s announcement.
“I will say most people don’t know about the Bush plan,” he said.
Mrs. Meissner also disputed the assumption that for every one person apprehended, another three make it through, calling it “purely Border Patrol lore.”
Earlier this year, Border Patrol agents were asking those they apprehended about whether the Bush proposal had prompted them to come, and after the agents reported that it was a factor, they were told not to ask anymore.
But even then, TJ Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said, “People were coming up to our agents and saying, ‘Where do we sign up for that guest-worker program, or that amnesty?’”
“Word travels like wildfire down there,” he said.
Several people said another reason for the spike in apprehensions could be increased enforcement along the Arizona border. More agents and better technology means more apprehensions in the short term, and then the number drops over time as immigrants test other areas along the border instead.
In mid-March the Department of Homeland Security announced new resources to patrol the Arizona border, including 60 temporary search-and-rescue agents, 200 permanent agents, $4 million for use of unmanned aerial vehicles, and $1 million in new sensors to detect illegal aliens crossing.
“What happens is, yes, you have this increased fortification in an area, and it definitely results in a higher apprehensions,” said Kathleen Walker, an immigration lawyer in Texas and member of the national executive council of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“The current expectation is we have a soft spot [in Texas] in the Del Rio-Presidio area,” she said. “That’s supposed to be another site now where we’re expecting higher numbers of people moving from the Arizona area.”