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Penalties stiffen for illegal entrants

The Associated Press


The Associated Press

The Border Patrol experienced a turning-point year in Arizona in 2008, with increased manpower, resources and technology bringing dramatic drops in illegal immigrant arrests, top officials say.

They’re confident more is on the way in 2009, in part because of a continuing shift away from a policy under which most illegal immigrants are automatically allowed to return home after being apprehended sneaking across the border.

The heads of the patrol’s Tucson and Yuma sectors cite the goal of eventually eliminating most voluntary repatriation as a significant step toward deterring illegal entries. They say it ensures that those who cross into the United States unlawfully will pay a price for doing so.

“My goal has always been to eliminate voluntary return,” said Chief Robert Gilbert, head of the patrol’s Tucson sector, which covers most of the Arizona-Mexico border. “I believe that’s one of the keys to border security – that’s through certainty of arrest and a penalty for the crime.”

Programs aimed at adding consequences were increasingly part of the mix during 2008, when the patrol also added to its arsenal of agents, fences, barriers, roads, lights and cameras. The programs included prosecutions of some border crossers for illegal entries along with efforts that return migrants to the Mexican interior or to distant border communities to sever ties to their smugglers.

During the 2008 fiscal year, 52,000 of the 317,000 illegal immigrants apprehended in the Tucson sector, or about 1 in 6, were not voluntarily returned.

Isabel Garcia, Pima County’s legal defender and a longtime human rights activist, deplores the shift but isn’t surprised.

“It’s what we’ve been sounding the alarm about for over the last 10 years,” she said, “that the enforcement would continue to increase dramatically, especially trying to eliminate voluntary return, knowing full well that it has horrendous consequences for immigrants.”

Often, she said, they have spouses and children who are American citizens.

“Secondly and most importantly,” she said, “is that the public must wonder out loud what $30 billion to $40 billion of ‘border security measures’ have done for us. It’s brought major insecurity, deaths, suffering, separation of families, destruction of private and environmental treasures, political chaos such that we have now elected some of the most anti-immigrant individuals in our history.”

Apprehensions plunged in both the Tucson and Yuma sectors during the 2008 fiscal year compared to the preceding 12 months.

Arrests dropped 16 percent, from 378,000 to 317,000, in the Tucson sector, the busiest region for illegal entries on the border. They went down 78 percent, from 38,000 to 8,363, in the Yuma sector.

In the Tucson sector, historically more than 70 percent of those arrested in the most heavily trafficked areas southwest of Tucson re-entered the country.

It’s what Gilbert called “a wicked cycle.”

“They would just be sent back to Nogales and come back in, be sent back to Nogales and come back in,” he said. “Eventually we don’t catch them anymore. Either they went home or they were successful.”

Now, the situation is different. Increased lights, fencing, roads, sensors and mobile and remote camera surveillance systems, as well as up to 70 illegal entry prosecutions a day, have cut the recidivism rate in that area to less than 30 percent, Gilbert said.

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