In the debate over immigration reform in the United States, some citizens have called for a halt to illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border, while others contend it is impossible to completely stop the flow of poor migrants across the 3,000-kilometer line. But a new Border Patrol pilot program is showing that strict enforcement of existing U.S. immigration laws can have a dramatic effect.
The Del Rio sector of the U.S.-Mexico border runs for 288 kilometers along the Rio Grande River, which forms the boundary between Texas and Mexico.
Since December of last year, the U.S. Border Patrol has tried a new program here that has curtailed both immigrant crossings and drug trafficking. With the cooperation of local law enforcement and U.S. attorneys in the area, the Border Patrol has sent hundreds of illegal entrants to be prosecuted for their crimes.
Under existing U.S. law, a person who enters the United States at any point other than an official port of entry is guilty of a misdemeanor and can be sentenced to up to six months in prison. In a VOA phone interview, Del Rio Border Patrol spokesman Randy Clark said the threat of punishment has discouraged people from crossing here.
"In our busiest station, where we once apprehended the most aliens, we are now close to 70 percent down for the month of May, when we compare it to 2005," he said. "For the period of the operation, which is December 2005 to present, we have noticed a 50 percent decline in the station, overall, for those six months."
Clark says the secret to the program's success is the application of existing law and the use of penalties spelled out in the statutes. In the Del Rio sector, agents have ended the so-called "revolving door" practice, whereby captured illegal immigrants were simply processed and sent back into Mexico, where they could then make another attempt at crossing. It has been common for Border Patrol agents to apprehend the same individual two or three times in the same day because of this practice.
Agent Clark says under the zero-tolerance program, dubbed "Operation Streamline," someone who has been jailed for breaking U.S. immigration law once will face more punishment for doing it again.
"If they enter the United States after serving that sentence and being removed from the country, then they find themselves in the predicament that they either are going to be prosecuted for a felony, because it is their second offense, or, if we elect to prosecute for a misdemeanor, they may face a stiffer penalty than on that first occasion," he added.
Clark says existing law gives federal prosecutors leeway to charge a person with a felony if they are a repeat offender, but this only applies to people crossing the border illegally.
A controversial bill passed by the House of Representatives in December would have made it a felony for anyone to be in the United States illegally, but some Congressmen who voted for it say that provision is likely to be dropped from a comprehensive bill worked out in the coming weeks between representatives of the House and Senate.
Clark says agents freed from the burden of processing and returning detainees can now spend more time catching them. He says President Bush's promise to send National Guard troops to the border should also be a help in that regard.
Border Patrol officials in Washington are closely monitoring "Operation Streamline" on the west Texas border, but Clark says it is too soon to say that this same approach can be applied everywhere else on the border.