The number of illegal immigrants arrested throughout the nation last year reached its highest point in four years, continuing an upward trend that some immigration experts say indicates the fading ability of employer sanctions to stem illegal immigration to the United States.
The number of arrests--considered a rough indicator of actual illegal crossings--topped 1.1 million in the yearlong period ending Sept. 30, marking the second straight year of increases after several years of decline.
Last year's figure was still below the record 1.6 million arrested in 1986, just prior to the passage of a sweeping reform of immigration law intended to curtail illegal immigration by imposing fines on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Gene McNary said the latest arrest figures, although up slightly, demonstrate the success of employer sanctions in stemming the flow of illegal immigration.
But some immigration experts said the new figures show immigrants have discovered the sanctions can be easily avoided through the use of fraudulent documents.
"I think it's safe to say that word is back to Mexico that employer sanctions are surmountable, and the deterrent effect is gone," said Dave Simcox, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative Washington think tank.
The majority of arrests last year occurred along the U.S.-Mexico border where slightly less than 1.1 million illegal immigrants were arrested. Of those, roughly half were caught in the 66 miles covered by U.S. Border Patrol's San Diego sector.
The San Diego sector last year saw a 14% increase in arrests to 540,300, according to INS figures.
Steve Kean, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in San Diego, said the increase was partly due to the increased enforcement efforts along the border in the past year. The Border Patrol last year erected a 10-foot-high steel fence across six miles of the most heavily traveled areas.
The increase in arrests nationwide--about 3% above the previous year's tally--follows the steep decline that came after Congress reformed immigration law five years ago.
The law, known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, granted amnesty to all illegal immigrants who had been in the country since 1982, and, to reduce the future migration of illegal immigrants, created employer sanctions.
The first year after the passage of the reform and control act, arrests of illegal immigrants plummeted from 1.6 million to 1.2 million, reaching a low of 891,000 in 1989.
Since 1989, however, the numbers have increased, although at a relatively slow pace.
In recent months, the INS has stepped up its enforcement of employer sanctions. Last year, the agency issued more than 2,000 fine notices against employers and assessed more than $12 million in fines.
But critics say that increased enforcement will have little effect, given the proliferation of fraudulent documents and the continued desperation of immigrants to come to the United States.
"The reason that people are coming hasn't changed--there's still poverty and war," said Madeline Janis, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center in Los Angeles. "Those things are still pushing people to come here."
Jorge Bustamante of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, an immigration research center in Tijuana, Mexico, said he believes that employer sanctions have never been successful in stopping illegal immigration.
He attributed the sharp fall in arrests after the passage of the reform and control act to the amnesty of illegal immigrants in 1986. Bustamante said those who received amnesty are no longer arrested, resulting in a drop in the Border Patrol's arrest statistics.
The increase of the past two years is due to a new generation of workers coming of age and making the journey to the United States in search of jobs, he said.
Bustamante, who oversees a nightly survey of illegal border crossers, said it is still uncertain if the migration will reach 1986 levels again.
He said more efficient enforcement along the border and the skyrocketing price of being smuggled into the United States have restricted the flow of illegal immigration.
Border Patrol Arrests
Here's a look at apprehensions of illegal immigrants by the U.S. Border Patrol from 1985 to 1991. The figures are collected during the federal fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
U.S./Mexican Border: 1,077,876
San Diego District: 540,300
SOURCE: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service