Loophole to America

Jerry Kammer, San Diego Union Tribune, June 4

McALLEN, Texas—In the silvery-blue light of dusk, 20 Brazilians glided across the Rio Grande in rubber rafts propelled by Mexican smugglers who leaned forward and breast-stroked through the gentle current.

Once on the U.S. side, the Brazilians scrambled ashore and started looking for the Border Patrol. Their quick and well-rehearsed surrender was part of a growing trend that is demoralizing the Border Patrol and beckoning a rising number of illegal immigrants from countries beyond Mexico.

“We used to chase them; now they’re chasing us,” Border Patrol Agent Gus Balderas said as he frisked the Brazilians and collected their passports late last month.

What happened next explains the odd reversal.

The group was detained overnight and given a court summons that allowed them to stay in the United States pending an immigration hearing. Then a Border Patrol agent drove them to the McAllen bus station, where they continued their journey into America.

The formal term for the court summons is a “notice to appear.” Border Patrol agents have another name for it. They call it a “notice to disappear.”

Of the 8,908 notices to appear that the immigration court in nearby Harlingen issued last year to non-Mexicans, 8,767 failed to show up for their hearings, according to statistics compiled by the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review. That is a no-show rate of 98 percent.

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Apprehension statistics bolster their assertion. Arrests of non-Mexicans along the U.S.-Mexico border totaled 14,935 in 1995, 28,598 in 2000 and 65,814 last year. In the first eight months of this federal fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, more than 85,000 have been apprehended. Nearly all are no-shows at their court hearings, but comprehensive federal figures are not available.

Statistics aren’t the only evidence. Interviews with immigrants caught sneaking across the border recently suggest the problem will only increase as Central and South American migrants learn of the unintended opportunity.

“We thought they were going to deport us,” said Ceidy Milady Canales Alvarez, a 22-year-old Honduran recently arrested by the Border Patrol in the McAllen sector. She said a cousin in Atlanta had encouraged her to make the trip. So she quit her $50-a-week job sewing shirts and pants that are exported to the United States and crossed the border.

A Guatemalan arrested late last month in the McAllen sector who gave his name as Hugo said that when word gets back home, “Anyone who has a little money will be coming.”

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In particular, the growth in the number of Brazilians taking advantage of the loophole has been spectacular, largely because of that country’s poor economic conditions. In 1995, the Border Patrol detained 260 Brazilians along the Mexican border. Five years later, the number had grown to 1,241. But over the past eight months, it has soared to some 22,000.

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