Border Busts Coming and Going

Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2008

U.S. border authorities no longer apprehend illegal immigrants only as they enter the country. Now they’re catching them on the way out.

At random times near the Tijuana-San Diego border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been setting up checkpoints, boarding buses destined for Mexico and pulling off people who don’t have proper documentation.

The operation appears to be an expansion of a broader federal crackdown targeting illegal immigrants in jails, airports and workplaces across the country.

The checkpoints, which are not announced in advance, are set up on southbound Interstate 5 about 100 yards north of the border. Vehicles in all lanes must stop.

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But some GOP politicians and anti-illegal immigration organizations praise federal authorities for widening their enforcement efforts. A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) said agents were simply doing their job.

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Illegal immigrants became targets for arrest at the checkpoints only a few months ago, according to immigrant rights groups and human rights organizations in Mexico. It is unclear how frequently the checkpoints have been set up.

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Federal agents say the checkpoints are a productive way to stop dangerous criminals, drug shipments and money launderers.

The illegal immigrants they apprehend are typically turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol for processing. Unless they have serious criminal records or numerous immigration violations, most are returned to Mexico within a few hours, the agents say.

Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center of Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, said he was not aware of similar crackdowns in the past. The checkpoints make sense for intercepting contraband, but targeting illegal immigrants voluntarily leaving the country is a “bizarre” way of handling the illegal immigration question, he said.

Other critics call it an enormous waste of resources and say it could be counterproductive and discourage immigrants from going home.

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But groups that fight illegal immigration praise federal authorities for showing more willingness to enforce existing immigration laws aggressively. Focusing on the criminality of people entering the country is only part of the job of border agencies, they say.

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