The sandy streets of Sasabe are empty. Migrant smugglers have to hunt for business at border-town shelters. Many deported migrants give up after one try, taking their government up on free bus rides home.
A U.S. crackdown is causing the longest and most significant drop in illegal migration from Mexico since the Sept. 11 attacks. Officials say the U.S. economic downturn, tighter security and a more perilous and expensive journey are persuading many who try to sneak into the U.S. to give up sooner.
Border Patrol arrests are down 17 percent so far this year along the U.S.-Mexico border after falling 20 percent all of last fiscal year and 8 percent the year before that. While it’s impossible to know how many people are crossing illegally, the Patrol uses apprehensions to estimate the ebb and flow of traffic.
The downturn in illegal immigration has created labor shortages throughout the United States and several states are considering temporary-worker programs, especially in agricultural fields, where produce is going bad.
Mexicans in the U.S. are starting to send less money home, too.
Money being sent back is down
Remittances soared in the early part of the decade to become Mexico’s largest source of foreign income after oil exports. But they rose just 1 percent in 2007, reaching $24 billion and in the first quarter this year, they slipped almost 3 percent from the same period last year, Mexico’s central bank said this week.
U.S. authorities attribute the drop to tighter security and a new program in the Tucson sector that has prosecuted more than 3,000 migrants for crossing illegally since it started in January. They face jail sentences from a few days to six months.
But none of the migrants interviewed by The Associated Press knew about the new prosecution program. Those on their way home said the main deterrents were tougher security and the dangers of the desert, including bandits who rob and even rape migrants on both sides of the border.
More border security
The U.S. Border Patrol has added 200 officers since last year to the Tucson sector, and a total of 3,000 agents now search the vast desert for illegal migrants by truck, horse, ATV and helicopter. They now have four drones scanning for drug and migrant smugglers, as well as two newly built 12-foot walls with steel posts near Nogales and in Sasabe.
At the same time, Mexican drug smugglers have started to collect fees for access to the main routes into Arizona.
Smugglers losing money
Francisco Loureiro, who runs a migrant shelter in Nogales, said that when migrants began arriving in January, the start of the high season, he spotted smugglers trying to drum up business inside his shelter.
Now, local police visit the shelter three times a night.
During earlier peak traffic seasons, overflowing vans and pickups would arrive in Sasabe and then head out to the drop-off points where migrants begin their long walk. The town of 1,500 people could see its population triple from migrants passing through.
Now businesses are closing and at least six safe houses and hotels have been left unfinished, said town administrator Ramona Flores. Border experts estimate that 70 percent of residents earn their living from migration.