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Evaluating Enhanced US Border Enforcement/ By Wayne Cornelius
During the past 10 years, the overwhelming emphasis in US immigration policy
has been on border enforcement, primarily on the US-Mexican border. Congress
has more than tripled spending for border enforcement activities since 1993,
despite evidence that this unprecedented border build-up has failed to deter
significant numbers of unauthorized migrants from attempting entry.
At the same time, some major unintended consequences have materialized,
including more than 2,640 border crossing-related deaths – 10 times more lives than
the Berlin Wall claimed during its 28-year existence – and a sharp increase
in permanent settlement of unauthorized Mexicans in the United States.
A Border-Centered Strategy of Immigration Control
Since 1993 the US strategy of immigration control has heavily emphasized
border enforcement over worksite enforcement and other forms of interior control.
Spending on border enforcement has more than tripled, while the worksite
enforcement effort has virtually collapsed. By 2001 there were only 124
immigration agents assigned to full-time enforcement of immigration laws in the
workplace, throughout the country, compared with 9,500 agents stationed on the border.
During the last three years, an average of only 1,900 employer investigations
were completed annually; only 12 unauthorized immigrants per week were
detained at their place of work. This token level of worksite enforcement is the
fundamental reason why much tougher border controls in the last 10 years have
had such a weak deterrent effect.
The border build-up had its origins in the Clinton administration’s efforts
to inoculate the president politically against the anti-immigration backlash
that began in California in 1992 and loomed as a potential threat to Clinton’s
reelection. It was believed that a symbolic show of force on the border would
neutralize Republican criticism of lax immigration control.
Rather than spreading out the new enforcement manpower and technological
enhancements all along the southwestern border, a decision was made to concentrate
them on four relatively short segments that traditionally had been used by
70-80 percent of “illegals” entering from Mexico. This method of deploying
Border Patrol resources was intended to raise the difficulty, financial cost, and
physical risk of illegal entry to such a level that deterrence would be
achieved at points of origin in Mexico and other key sending countries. The logic of
this “prevention through deterrence” strategy was that if the four main
corridors in the San Diego, El Paso, central Arizona, and south Texas area were
effectively secured, geography would do the rest. Formidable mountains and
scorching deserts would deter crossings in the more hazardous areas between the
fortified border segments. That critical assumption would prove untenable.
Falling Apprehensions and a Growing Stock
The southwest border enforcement build-up did, indeed, make illegal entry
more costly, difficult, and dangerous for Mexican immigrants. However, there is
no convincing evidence that it has reduced either the stock or the flow of
unauthorized migrants from Mexico. Since FY2001 there has been a downward trend in
Border Patrol apprehensions, but the decline may have bottomed out (the
decline in FY2003 was only three percent, and the trend since October 2003 has been
sharply upward). Moreover, it is highly arguable that fewer apprehensions
being made along the southwestern border mean that the flow of unauthorized
migrants has declined. According to several independently made estimates, the total
population of undocumented immigrants living in the United States has been
growing robustly during most of the period of “concentrated border enforcement.”
The most recent estimate, by the Urban Institute’s Jeffrey Passel, is a
population of 9.3 million, well over half of whom are Mexican nationals. The
percentage of unauthorized migrants working in specific sectors of the economy also
has continued to rise (e.g., such migrants probably constitute more than 60
percent of the total US agricultural labor force).
How can we explain declining apprehensions at the border, at a time when the
stock of unauthorized migrants and their presence in specific labor markets
continue to expand? There are at least two plausible explanations. First, the
post-1993 border enforcement strategy may have succeeded in raising the costs
of entry to the point that undocumented Mexican migrants are staying longer on
each trip they make or settling permanently in the United States. If they are
not coming and going across the border they are not at risk of being
apprehended. If that is what is going on, it means that the US border-centered
immigration control strategy has been effective in bottling up illegal migrants inside
the United States, not necessarily in deterring them from coming in the first
place. A second possible explanation is the learning process: As the border
build-up has continued, migrants and people-smugglers have become more adept at
The most unambiguous consequences of the border build-up of the last 10 years
have been to redistribute illegal entries geographically, and to fuel the
professional people-smuggling industry to an extent unimagined by the “coyotes”
of the pre-1993 era. As measured by apprehension statistics, illegal entries
along the California segment of the border – where most of the new Border
Patrol resources have been deployed – dropped sharply, while entries along the
Arizona segment skyrocketed. As the border has been squeezed in the San Diego, El
Paso, and south Rio Grande Valley areas, it has bulged elsewhere, most notably
in central Arizona (the Tucson sector) and in mid-Texas (the Del Rio sector).
A $10 million enhanced border enforcement effort in Arizona, announced in
March 2004, already has begun to shift the traffic into New Mexico and back into
the San Diego sector.
As border control has tightened, a higher percentage of migrants have sought
assistance from people-smugglers (US policy has made them indispensable to a
safe crossing), and the smugglers’ average fee has more than tripled since
1993, to $1,500-2,000 per head. Smugglers, however, have not yet priced
themselves out of the market. Rather, US-based relatives of would-be unauthorized
migrants have just dug deeper into their pockets to help finance the trip.
A Rising Death Toll and More Vigilantes
One of the most visible consequences of the border-focused strategy has been
to increase the deaths resulting from clandestine entry. From January 1995
through March 2004, more than 2,640 migrants died – more than one death per day
in the last four years. Deaths occurring along the Arizona and Texas segments
of the border have increased ten-fold since the implementation of the
concentrated border enforcement strategy. Border-wide, the probability of dying versus
being apprehended by the Border Patrol has doubled since 1998. These
statistics understate the number of fatalities, since they include only those migrants
whose bodies have been recovered by the Border Patrol and Mexican police.
Most migrant deaths in the last 10 years have been due to “environmental
causes:” freezing to death in the mountains of San Diego County, succumbing to
dehydration or heat stroke in the deserts of California and Arizona, or being
asphyxiated in sealed trucks and railroad cars as migrants are being transported
away from the border area. There has also been sharp increase in deaths due
to drowning (mostly in the All-American Canal, an irrigation ditch that
parallels the US-Mexico border for long stretches in California and Arizona). Federal
officials routinely blame these deaths on the tactics of professional
people-smugglers. But the smugglers are only satisfying a demand that has been
created largely by the strategy of concentrated border enforcement.
The strategy has also provoked an upsurge in organized, anti-immigrant
vigilante activity on the US side of the border. Vigilante groups now operate in all
four southwestern border states, and they have been acquiring increasingly
sophisticated technology like night-vision cameras and unmanned aerial drones.
They make extra-official apprehensions and turn their captives over to the
Border Patrol. While only a few cases of migrant injuries or deaths resulting from
vigilante activities have been documented to date, the potential for greater
loss of life is evident.
In light of the heavy collateral damage resulting from the current strategy
of border enforcement, several alternatives might be considered. One would be
to simply dismantle the four existing concentrated border enforcement
operations. This option is a political non-starter, however, because it would be
fiercely opposed by residents of the now-secured areas and their elected
representatives, who are happy to have illegal entries pushed out of their sight.
Another option would be to extend concentrated border enforcement operations
all along the southwestern border. That would require tens of billions of
dollars in new spending, and there would be major disruptions of the border
economy – another non-starter.
A third option would be to strengthen enforcement of immigration laws in the
workplace, in order to reduce the demand for unauthorized immigrant labor. At
this point in time, however, enforcement of the employer sanctions approved by
Congress in 1986 is greatly complicated by the proliferation of false
documents, which can be obtained easily on the street corners of any Mexican border
city. Congress has shown no appetite for a new, national system of verifying
employment eligibility, without which effective worksite enforcement is
impossible. Moreover, most members of Congress have no stomach for the widespread
economic disruptions and constituent complaints that a systematic crackdown on
employers of unauthorized immigrants inevitably would generate.
A temporary worker program of the type envisioned in President George W. Bush’
s recent immigration reform proposal (and variations on this option proposed
by members of Congress) would probably do little to change the basic dynamics
of Mexico-to-US migration. Such programs usually are more efficient as
vehicles for importing labor than for reducing unwanted immigration. Typically they
produce parallel flows of legal-temporary and unauthorized migration. Even if
the program is designed perfectly to maximize participation among migrants and
employers, there can be major unintended consequences, most notably the
permanent settlement of “temporary” workers whose continued services are sought by
employers. And if the program is limited to specific sectors of the economy
(like the “Ag-Jobs” bill championed by senators Edward Kennedy and Larry
Craig), migrants seeking employment in the excluded sectors will come illegally.
In the long run, research indicates that the most effective approach would be
to get serious about creating alternatives to emigration in the key sending
areas of Mexico and Central America. In the case of Mexico, we know exactly
where such efforts would need to be targeted: the roughly five percent of
municipalities that contribute the lion’s share of migrants to the United States.
Thus far, however, neither the US nor the Mexican government has shown any
serious interest in the “developmental approach” to immigration control, which
would take at least 10-15 years to show results.
Meanwhile, the “Maginot line” that we have built along the southwestern
border continues to claim more than one life per day. There is no reason to
believe that the current, border-centered approach will ever succeed in deterring
significant numbers of new entrants, absent the political will to do what is
necessary to reduce employer demand for migrant labor. Any strategy of
immigration control that addresses only the supply side is doomed to failure. That is
the fundamental lesson that US policy makers can draw from the past decade of
steadily escalating spending on border enforcement.
Wayne Cornelius is the Gildred Professor of Political Science and US-Mexican
Relations and Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies,
University of California-San Diego. His latest book is Controlling Immigration: A
Global Perspective, 2nd ed. (co-edited; Stanford University Press,
Mexican Melodrama Leads to Diplomatic Crisis with Cuba
By Laura Carlsen
Mexicans have been living a national melodrama lately—but without the happy
The plot has all the ingredients of prime-time television: suspense, romance,
espionage, corruption, and sensational twists and turns. All this, with the “
In March, the Mexican media aired three explosive videotapes. First up was a
video showing Mexico City Finance Secretary Gustavo Ponce gambling in Las
Vegas. He was accused of corruption, then fired and disappeared. Appearing later
in the months were tapes showing prominent members of the opposition Party of
the Democratic Revolution accepting cash from construction entrepreneur, Carlos
Faced with public humiliation, the PRD spiraled into the worst institutional
crisis of its 15-year existence. Several prominent members tied to the
corruption scandal left the party in disgrace. Mexico City’s popular mayor, Andrés
Manuel Lopez Obrador, alleged federal government involvement.
And from there, the plot thickens.
It’s likely that Mexico has the longest lead time into elections any country
on the planet. Two years before the 2006 elections, parties and candidates
already have been jockeying into position for months. The dark horse,
center-leftist Lopez Obrador, had the traditional front-runners scared. With his approval
ratings above 80% in the city that represents a quarter of the nation’s
population, his popularity could serve as motive for what he claims to be an
orchestrated campaign to discredit him.
As proof of this campaign, Lopez Obrador submitted documents showing that the
government had evidence of Ponce’s malfeasance months before the February
videotape and failed to act or notify city government. He also offered evidence
that the Fox administration had officially contacted the U.S. Financial Crimes
Enforcement Network to request the tape from the Las Vegas hotel and then
leaked the communication to the Mexican press. When Ahumada, already under
investigation by the city for fraud, accused the city government of extortion, the
federal government received the complaint not in the offices of the Public
Ministry, but in a luxury hotel paid for by the national intelligence agency and
accompanied by PAN Congressional leader, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos.
Even the shadowy ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari has made a cameo
entrance in the drama, with national media reporting his nexus with Ahumada and a
series of secret meetings between the two before the scandals erupted.
So where does Cuba come in?
Wanted by the city government for fraud, Ahumada fled the country in his
private plane to Cuba. This is odd, since Cuba is a very small country to hide in.
Here after several weeks he was arrested by Cuban authorities.
In jail, the Cuban government interrogated Ahumada. Then, it decided to
deport him to Mexico on April 28, accompanied by a missive stating “We don’t want
to get involved in Mexico’s internal affairs; we’ve been involuntarily mixed
up in this,” and revealing that Ahumada asserted that the scandal was planned
months ahead and involved government officials.
Rather than thanking the Cuban government for returning an alleged criminal
to face charges, the Fox government was clearly upset at this turn of events.
Arriving at the airport, the Attorney General’s Office detained Ahumada and for
five hours and prohibited at gunpoint the entry of the city attorney
general--the only one that had filed formal charges against the fugitive. With no l
ogical explanation offered for this behavior, observers speculated that an
emergency debriefing session took place.
On May 2, the Mexican government announced that relations with Cuba had been
reduced to the level of charges d’ affaires, the ambassador was given 48 hours
to leave the country and his political attaché was declared persona non grata
and expelled. Mexico’s ambassador in Cuba was immediately withdrawn.
The Fox administration offered three reasons for this move, considered
extremely drastic in a country that boasts over a hundred years of uninterrupted
relations with Cuba and was the only Latin American nation to maintain diplomatic
relations with the island after the revolution, when the Organization of
American States voted in 1962 to expel Cuba.
First, Fidel Castro delivered an incendiary speech on May 1 in which he lit
into the countries that had voted against Cuba in the U.N. Human Rights
Commission, stating that Mexico’s foreign policy had been “reduced to ashes” and
noting that Mexico’s vote was announced by the U.S. beforehand. Luis Derbez,
Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Relations called this an “insult.”
Second, the Fox administration interpreted the Cuban message on Ahumada’s
deportation as “interference in internal affairs” since it reinforced the plot
thesis and called the case “political.”
Third, the government cited visits by two Cuban Communist Party leaders
traveling under diplomatic passports in the month of April. The leaders held
meetings with members of Mexican political parties and did not go through diplomatic
channels. Secretary of the Government Santiago Creel cited the recent “Law of
Transparency” to deny giving details as to the activities of the Cubans but
stated that the government considered their presence serious meddling in
In a three-hour press conference, Cuban Foreign Secretary Felipe Perez Roque
responded to each accusation. He claimed the deportation was to facilitate
justice in the Ahumada case and openly questioned why the Mexican government
seemed to prefer a drawn-out extradition process. He stated that it was a
longstanding courtesy to allow high-level officials to travel under diplomatic
passports and that the men in question had made numerous trips to Mexico in the past.
He also provided a list of every meeting between the officials and Mexicans—
presumably part of the evidence “reserved” by the Mexican government. The list
included members of all three major political parties.
The highlight of the marathon session came when Perez Roque presented four
minutes of the reportedly 40 hours of filmed testimony by Carlos Ahumada.
Looking debonair and relaxed, the Argentine businessman affirms that he gave the
tapes to federal government officials in return for immunity from prosecution for
fraud and “economic help.” His statements, the basis for his deportation,
seem to confirm the longstanding accusation of the Mexico City mayor that the
video-scandals against his government and party form part of a plot devised in
the upper echelons of the federal government. While the plot thesis does not
vindicate city and PRD officials caught in acts of corruption, it could imply a
series of other crimes involving federal government officials, including
entrapment, obstruction of justice, and lying to the public.
Neither Congress nor the Mexican people were consulted on the decision to
withdraw the Mexican ambassador from Cuba and expel the Cuban ambassador.
On May 6, the Mexican secretaries of government and foreign relations,
Santiago Creel and Luis Derbez respectively, appeared before the press to respond to
Cuba’s response. They offered no further evidence but reiterated two points:
that the Cubans provoked the near-rupture by meddling in internal affairs and
that the Mexican government did not want a full break and was willing to work
The three reasons for what Mexican diplomats consider a rupture in all but
formal terms, on inspection are very thin. Fidel Castro is not known for curbing
his tongue and his diatribe against Mexican foreign policy on May 1st could
easily be considered offensive. But this is not the first time a country has
insulted another. In the past, such issues are ignored or handled through
diplomatic channels, not sudden ruptures. The Mexican government made no effort at
diplomatic appeasement, nor did it lodge a formal protest prior to its
decision. Nicaragua, also attacked in the speech for sending troops to Iraq, sent a
note of protest to Cuba. Peru also withdrew its ambassador after the May 1st
speech, and was given a green light on negotiations toward a Free Trade Agreement
in Washington the following day. Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo
immediately claimed the two events were unrelated.
The Mexican protest that Cuba got involved in internal affairs by issuing a
statement indicating that Ahumada case was “political” and deporting him,
rather than waiting for extradition, also looks suspect. Deportation is a right of
any country, especially when the individual in question is charged with a
crime. The immediate reaction was that the government was trying to cover
As to the third charge, the public has no way to judge the basis of it.
Mexican and international law allows party members from different nations to talk
to each other, even when traveling on diplomatic visas. The list provided by
the Cuban chancellor seems to belie the claim that their actions were
subversive. Since, the government maintained its right to “reserve information” on why
it considered the meetings between the Cubans and Mexicans a breach of
international law, it was impossible for the public to understand a critical basis
for the sudden decision.
The lack of credibility of the official version leaves open the field to
speculation. Two motives appear prominently. With the information Cuba has as a
result of interrogating Carlos Ahumada, the Cubans could be sitting on a
political bombshell for the Fox government if the plot thesis turns out to be
correct. By cutting off relations and playing the U.S. game of isolating Cuba, the
Fox administration may be hoping to discredit the Castro government’s
pronouncements before they appear. Perez Roque carefully gave no names but indicated
that Ahumada had mentioned several of the individuals involved.
A second suspected motive for the decision lies in the Fox administration’s
eagerness to please Washington. While thousands marched in Mexico City to
protest the government’s decision to sever ties with a sister nation, a smiling
Colin Powell heralded the move as “appropriate.” The same day as the
Creel-Derbez press conference, Washington announced strict new measures to “end the
dictatorship” in Cuba. The Mexican government has denied any connection between the
two events but the coincidence strengthened public opinion that the Fox
administration alienated Havana to appease Washington.
The international intrigue playing out in Mexico today makes fascinating
conversation. Too bad that real lives and reputations, the credibility of
governments, and international relations--not to mention an all-too-tenuous transition
to democracy—hang in the balance.
Laura Carlsen is the Director of IRC Americas Program based in Mexico City,
Mexico www.americaspolicy.org. Email at: laura@...
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