Image: Rio Grande river
Two men, who declined to give their names, listen for approaching vehicles as they climb onto U.S. soil from the Rio Grande river near Laredo, Texas, in November.
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msnbc.com

With the end of the holiday season, the annual — and often deadly — cat-and-mouse game between undocumented migrants and the U.S. Border Patrol has resumed along the Mexican border. But this year, there are signs that beefed-up security in the wake of Sept. 11 will slow the exodus, although migrant rights groups say there’s no reason to celebrate.

The first four months of the year have always been the busiest along the 2,110-mile southwest frontier as migrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America make their first foray northward, or seek to return to their workplaces in the United States.

However, recent data provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service indicate a substantial drop in apprehensions along the frontier, suggesting the increased security may have deterred some migrants from returning home during the holidays.

According to the Border Patrol, there were 101,726 illegal migrants apprehended along the Southwest Border during the last three months of 2001, down from 205,422 for the same period of 2000.

For fiscal year 2001, which ended in September, there were 1,235,685 apprehensions, down from 1,643,679 in fiscal year 2000 and the lowest level since 1994, the year the INS launched Operation Gatekeeper to clamp down on migrants crossing illegally into the United States.

The INS said it doesn’t want to speculate on any future trends along the border until it sees data for this month and February. However, Nicole Chulick of the INS Office of Public Affairs said a slowdown was noticed last January, which the enforcement agency attributed to a number of factors, including the landmark election in Mexico of President Vicente Fox and reports the Bush Administration was considering a new amnesty for undocumented workers, which made some migrants reluctant to go home.

But Chulick said the heightened security alert after Sept. 11 hastened the fall. “There were declines of the magnitude of 50 percent,” she said.

LIVES AT RISK

Immigrant rights groups agree that some undocumented migrants may have stayed put in the United States this winter, rather than risk the perilous round trip, but they also see no change in the overall pattern.

“We believe that the same number of undocumented migrants are crossing the border,” said Christian Ramirez, coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, Calif.

Claudia Smith, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, attributed the drop to short-lived factors such as the recession and the terrorist attacks, but argued that the influx is set to pick up again, especially as the economic downturn in the United States spreads into Mexico.

As viewed by the advocacy groups, the INS measures have only forced migrants to put their lives in greater danger by crossing over treacherous mountains and baking deserts to enter the United States.

“The reports of human rights violations have been constant,” Ramirez said.

As evidence, rights’ groups point to the surge in deaths since the INS launched Operation Gatekeeper on Oct. 1, 1994.

Initially focused on the San Diego sector, then the busiest crossing point for migrants, Gatekeeper has stretched eastward, with physical barriers such as high walls and movement sensors bolstered by a doubling the number of border agents to around 9,000.

TREACHEROUS CROSSINGS

According to data from the U.S. and Mexican governments, the death of migrants stranded along the frontier has soared since the INS crackdown.

For example, data gathered by the Mexican government show that 455 migrants died crossing the frontier in 2000, up from 129 in 1997, the first year it began compiling such information.

Figures for Jan-Sept of 2001 show that 303 people perished, an apparent drop although the Foreign Ministry has yet to compile numbers for the full year.

The INS only began reporting deaths along the border in fiscal year 1998. Most recently, the government agency reported that 322 migrants died in fiscal year 2001, down from 370 the previous year. Of those, the majority died of heat exposure or by drowning.

The discrepancy between the Mexican and U.S. figures can be attributed to the fact that Mexico counts deaths on both sides of the border while the INS concerns itself with those who died within the United States.

The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation has insisted that Operation Gatekeeper “deliberately puts migrants in mortal harm’s way.”

In a submission to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, the foundation’s Smith noted that the El Centro sector, which covers California’s harsh Imperial Desert, was the deadliest sector for a fourth year in a row.

The INS denies such charges. Spokeswoman Nicole Chulick said that the southwest border has always been dangerous and that the United States has taken steps to warn migrants of the perils. It also launched a cross-border initiative with Mexico to reduce the incidents of migrant deaths.

“You can’t forget the fundamental fact that the INS is charged with enforcing immigration laws although we realize that the price shouldn’t be a life,” Chulick added.

Ira Mehlman, media director at FAIR, which advocates more stringent U.S. immigration laws, said that the deaths were tragic. “But in the end, these people have to take responsibility for their own actions,” in this case breaking the law in order to gain entry to the United States.

NO SLOWDOWN

Notwithstanding the immediate impact of Operation Gatekeeper and Sept. 11, advocacy groups said migrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have no choice but to head to the United States.

“Sept. 11 has not changed the fact that, despite greater competition for jobs in the U.S. as a result of the recession, most migrants will still have a better chance of earning a living wage north of the border,” Smith said.

According to Ramirez of the AFSC, his group has noted more migrants — notably in the agriculture region north of San Diego — remained in the United States over the holidays, a development he linked to Sept. 11.

But he sees no reason that overall numbers at the border will decrease. On the contrary, now with Mexico officially in an economic recession, “those who wouldn’t normally come north [such as professionals and city dwellers] are now doing so,” he said.

The euphoria stirred by the election of President Fox, who ended more than 70 years of one-party rule in Mexico, has faded, Ramirez said. “The economy now is so bad and trust in the president has decreased enormously [that] we feel that it will affect immigration flows,” he said.

But FAIR’s Mehlman said that the recent data show that conditions in the United States do impact the flow of illegal immigrants.

“If the economy is soft and jobs are hard to come by, that will be reflected in their behavior. After Sept. 11, far fewer people made the attempt,” he said. “You will never have zero illegal immigration but you can significantly reduce the levels by enforcing the law.”

On Saturday, President Bush weighed in, telling a town hall meeting in Ontario, Calif., that the long-term solution to the issue was a more prosperous Mexico.

By helping Mexico become economically stronger, “a person who is willing to walk miles across a Texas desert to work, to feed [his] children, will be able to find work close to home,” Bush said.

(Sean Federico-O’Murchu is an international writer and editor for MSNBC.com)

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