Illegal Border Crossers Now Favoring California

Elliot Spagat, AP, Aug. 7, 2006

TECATE, Calif.—The number of immigrants illegally jumping the California-Mexico border appears to be increasing as enforcement gets tougher in Arizona, Border Patrol arrest statistics suggest.

It’s known as the water-balloon effect: Squeeze one spot and illegal immigration will bulge elsewhere along the 1,952-mile frontier.

While overall arrests have fallen a modest 3 percent since October, they are up sharply in some places, including the San Diego area. Thanks to a surge in hiring new agents, the Border Patrol says it’s ready for a shift in traffic. Skeptics aren’t so sure.

In the early 1990s, San Diego was overrun by border crossers. Hundreds at a time stormed the world’s busiest border crossing, paralyzing motorists on Interstate 5. Migrants waltzed freely over to vendors who catered to them in nearby canyons.

A crackdown launched in 1994 and modeled on a similar effort in El Paso, Texas, pushed many migrants away from the border’s two largest cities and into Arizona’s mountains and deserts. Total arrests ebbed and flowed over the last decade, but changed little: 1.3 million in 1995 versus 1.2 million in 2005.

Arrests in the Border Patrol’s sector around Tucson are down 9 percent to 345,973 since October compared to the previous year, though it is still the busiest corridor. Meanwhile, arrests rose 19 percent to 175,324 between the two sectors that span all but a few miles of California’s border with Mexico.

The recent arrest spike in and around San Diego comes as the Border Patrol grows from 11,800 agents today to 18,000 by the end of 2008. That force will be supported by up to 6,000 National Guard troops.

Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said last month that San Diego is “very well prepared.”

Skeptics say that no matter how many agents there are or where they are positioned, the rush of border crossers would continue as long as jobs were easy to get.

“You can put a million agents along the U.S.-Mexican border and that alone is not going to stop the pressure and flow of migrants,” said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute.

The spike in traffic is invisible to most San Diego residents because migrants cross in rugged terrain east of the seaside city of 1.3 million people.

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Word that hundreds of migrants have died crossing Arizona’s unforgiving deserts may also contribute to the shift to California, said Wayne Cornelius, a political scientist at the University of California—San Diego.

His interviews this year with 724 people in the Mexican state of Yucatan found San Diego was by far the favored crossing area.

Jose Reyes, 32, had enough of Arizona after he and 16 others were picked up by the Border Patrol three months ago. After crossing near Douglas, they walked five days and drank water from cattle tanks.

“We turned ourselves in (to the Border Patrol); they were our salvation,” said Reyes, who spoke at a Tijuana migrant shelter. He planned to attempt another crossing, this time near Tecate, on his way to a dishwasher job in San Francisco.

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