Monday, September 30, 2013



Note:  A bit of spin here.  

Special report: Operation Hold the Line
Hold the Line: Experts say operation did more harm than good
By Lorena Figueroa / El Paso Times
POSTED:   09/30/2013 12:20:31 AM MDT

›› Photos: 20th anniversary of Operation Hold the Line on the US-Mexico border
›› Hold the Line: El Paso operation changed enforcement method along US-Mexico border
Juárez>> Operation Hold the Line, implemented by the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso in 1993, has done more harm than good in Juarez, according to local immigration experts.

They say the operation, which in two decades has evolved into a more secured and guarded El Paso-Juárez border, did not stop the flow of illegal immigration.

Instead, it contributed to more immigrant deaths and fed human smuggling organizations on both sides of the border.

For experts and advocates south of the Rio Grande, the only way to stop illegal immigration is with an immigration reform package in the United States that includes a mechanism that allows workers to temporarily stay in the U.S., or by expanding the visa program.

Immigration reform may not stop it completely but it will slow illegal immigration down significantly.

And a good immigration package would be more welcomed in Mexico than the current Border Patrol strategy that still mimics Operation Hold the Line, which was implemented 20 years ago this month.

The operation put 400 agents -- out of more than 600 agents on staff at the time -- along a 20-mile stretch along the Rio Grande in El Paso and Juárezto provide "a show of force" to potential border crossers.

In 1990, 1991 and 1992, before the operation was implemented, Juárez accounted for about 20 percent  of all illegal crossings between Mexico and the United States, according to Juárezresearcher Rodolfo Rubio from Colegio de la Frontera Norte, or Colef. Rubio is an expert on immigration flows. He produces Mexico's North Border Immigration Survey.

Colef's annual survey, started in 1993, has become a barometer on immigration flows between Mexico and the United States.

The aggressive strategy of sealing El Paso-Juárez border resulted in a 75 percent reduction in apprehensions, from 285,000 to 79,000 after the first year of Operation Hold the Line.

For the Border Patrol, the operation was an overnight success and it was quickly expanded into California where it was called Operation Gatekeeper, and in Arizona as Operation Safeguard. It was later implemented in the rest of Texas where it was known as Operation Rio Grande.

Rubio said the central idea of Hold the Line was, and continues to be, to discourage undocumented immigrants from crossing illegally into El Paso. But for most undocumented immigrants, the operation was an inconvenience, not a discouragement, he said.

Instead of crossing through El Paso, undocumented immigrants changed their routes and began crossing through desolate, remote and more-dangerous places. And, if they were caught, they chose a voluntary exit from the United States instead of being formally deported, which allowed the immigrants to avoid federal criminal charges.

The flow of illegal immigration in this region has shifted to the Valley of Juárez or the Palomas-Columbus, N.M., area.

In other border communities, like the San Diego-Tijuana border, the flow moved to the east.

By the end of the 1990s, most of the illegal immigration was flowing through the area of the Sonora, Arizona desert, according to Colef's survey.

What Operation Hold the Line did do, Mexican experts say, is force undocumented immigrants to reduce their travels into the United States.

Before the operation, Mexican citizens routinely traveled several times a year between the United States and Mexico or their countries of origin. For those living in Juárez, immigrants used to cross up to three times a day to work or shop, Rubio said.

That all stopped in 1993.

Longer stays

Instead of crossing daily, Rubio said immigrants began staying in the U.S. for longer periods of time or permanently, which contributed to the growth in population of immigrants living unlawfully in the country.

Analyses of census data from the U.S. and Mexican governments show that the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States peaked at 12.2 million in 2007.

Experts said the reduced number of crossings explains why there was a reduction in Border Patrol apprehensions after Operation Hold The Line was implemented.

And because of that the immediate success of Hold The Line was measurable, but inaccurate in the long run.

"The illegal immigration flow did not stop. Immigrants continued crossing despite the risks, obeying the expansion of work supply in the United States," Rubio said.

The number of deaths of immigrants trying to cross the United States illegally soared after 1993. Experts and human rights advocates blame the sealing of the border.
"It was the most terrible indicator of the new policy," Rubio said of Hold the Line.

According to Colef's survey, since 1994 the number of deaths average about 400 each year, reaching peaks in 2000 and 2007 when 491 and 520 immigrants, respectively, died trying to illegally cross the U.S.- Mexico border.

In El Paso-Juárez about two deaths on average were reported before 1993. By 1995 there were 14 and five years later that number almost doubled to 27, according to news archives.

The same trend continued in the last decade. From 2004 to 2012, 126 Mexicans died while attempting to cross this border, reaching its peak in 2005, when 30 deaths were reported, according to statistics of the Consulate General of Mexico's office in El Paso.

Most immigrants drowned in the Franklin Canal or died of sunstroke or hypothermia in the dessert near Deming, Lordsburg and Columbus, N.M., statistics show.

"Immigrants prefer to die in the attempt to cross than to stay in their hometowns to see their families die of hunger," said the Rev. Javier Calvillo, director of Casa del Migrante in Juárez, a shel ter for immigrants founded 20 years ago. "That is what they have told us in the past and we continue hearing it."

Smuggling increase

What Operation Hold the Line did do was contribute to an increase in immigrant smuggling which continues to feed organized crime on both sides of the border, according to experts.

Currently human smuggling is the second largest illicit activity in Mexico after drug trafficking.

According to Colef, in 1993 only 12 percent of immigrants that arrived in Juárez who planned to cross into the United States hired a "coyote" or "pollero" to help them cross. That percentage began to increase after Hold the Line because of the difficulty to cross a more guarded border, experts said.

By the early 2000s, about half of immigrants trying to cross illegally hired a human smuggler and by 2012 that percentage jumped to 80, according to Colef's survey.

"Immigrants became more dependent human smugglers because they knew the area and the weaker points of the border," Rubio explained.

He added that most immigrants that use a "coyote" are newcomers who do not know the border and its risks. Those immigrants that knew the region preferred to stay permanently in the United States.

With the increase in the use of coyotes came a rise in prices they charge. Rubio said that in the early 1990s the payment to a human smuggler was $200 on average.

Now it could be up to $9,000, depending on the type of service, which today includes transportation, shelter and sometimes the sale or rental of U.S.-issued immigration documents, he said.

Lucía Campos, 38, last month paid $18,000 to get legitimate U.S. Visas that do no belong to her. She got one for her, her husband and her two daughters from a woman that had "helped her" cross illegally into the United States through El Paso-Juárez border once before.

The package she paid for included shelter in Juárez and El Paso, and transportation to Fort Worth, where she and her family had lived for eight years until 2011. They returned to Mexico last year when her mother-in-law fell ill.

The family was staying at the Casa del Migrante in Juárez last week.

A native of Mexico City, Campos said that in 2003 when she and her family crossed the border for the first time she paid $1,500 per visa.

But it is not as easy to cross now and a high fee does not a guarantee a successful, or safe, crossing into the United States as more and more coyotes are leaving immigrants behind.

"Immigrants have become merchandise, rather than clients, for smugglers," Calvillo said.

He said that immigrants are exposed, not only to the dangers of the environment when crossing illegally through the dessert or the Rio Grande, but to being kidnapped, being forced into prostitution -- in the case of women -- or sold to other criminal organizations.

"The worse case is for them to be abandoned and left to die," Calvillo said.

Campos was, in a way, lucky. She was arrested Aug. 5 while crossing at Bridge of the Americas in El Paso. Her family was with her and also got arrested.
"I think we were decoys," she said.

Campos explained that a guide told her and her family at the last minute to walk through the southbound lanes of the free bridge to avoid inspection. At the same time, a woman did the same but underneath the bridge with the guide.
"Of course we were arrested. The other person (woman) crossed without any problems," she said.

After a month in jail, Campos, her husband and one daughter were deported through Juárez, where she tried to contact the same woman smuggler to get her money back.
"She refused," she said. "The only thing she could do for us is to try to cross us (illegally) again."

Shift in crossings

Today Juárez accounts for less than 1 percent of all immigrants who plan to cross illegally into the United States. The majority of them, 70 percent, are concentrated between Arizona and California, Rubio said.

The increased cost for the use of a coyote in El Paso has played a major role in the shift, Rubio said.

Calvillo said that immigrants who do not have the resources to pay for a guide or to travel to another state to cross illegally are the ones that become victims of the sealed border in El Paso.

Despite the risks, only a small percentage of all immigrants decide to stay in Juárez. Even those who have been deported once, are willing to try it again.

Colef's survey, which interview's hundreds of immigrants each year, shows that in the early 1990s more than 60 percent of immigrants had one thing in mind: to cross the border.

The implementation of Hold the Line and other operations on the border did not dissuade immigrants to enter for the first time or return to the United States. In 2003 about 75 percent of immigrants said they wanted to cross the border and by 2010 that percentage increased to 85 percent, according to the survey.

Experts said that poverty, lack of job opportunities in their hometowns, as well as family reunification and supply of jobs in the United States are the factors that have driven people to continue to immigrate.

The U.S. recession, the collapse of the U.S. construction industry and the anti-immigrant climate in the United States slowed down illegal crossings in the mid 2000s and begun, what Rubio calls a "rebound" of immigration from the United States to Mexico.

According to the Mexican census, almost 1 million Mexicans residing illegally in the United States -- about 834,000 adults and 122,000 minors who were born in the United States -- returned to Mexico between 2005 and 2010.

Among those returning included immigrants that had been living in the United States for years, even decades. They had a job, a home, and in many cases children born in the United States.

Recent data form the Hispanic Pew Center indicates that about 3.3 million U.S. children live in families with one or both parents.

"It begun the drama of the separation of families," Calvillo said.

María, who was living last week at Casa del Migrante in Juárezsince being deported, was separated from her daughter and her 10-year-old granddaughter, a U.S. citizen who is in Dallas.

Her daughter is still detained at Otero County Jail trying to fight deportation, awaiting if she can benefit from the Dream Act. María's daughter has a bachelor's degree in physical therapy and was finishing a master's degree in Dallas before she traveled to Mexico last year.

María said does not know if she could ever enter the United States again.

"I feel like 20 years of my life in the United States -- my job, my house, my family -- were suddenly robbed," she said.

Rubio said there is a good possibility that illegal immigration continues increasing once the United States fully recuperates, despite all security at the border.

"But it would not be in the great immigration volumes that we saw in the last two decades", he predicts.

Mexico's workforce is aging and jobs and wages are rising in that country.

Lorena Figueroa may be reached at 546-6129


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