El Paso Plan Deters Illegal Immigrants : Border: A federal study finds Operation Hold-the-Line effective. But researchers say it causes staffing and morale problems for agents.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A concerted Border Patrol effort to stop illegal immigration in El Paso is a substantial deterrent to illegal crossings and has led to small drops in school enrollments and crime rates, according to researchers working for the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

Researchers also give Operation Hold-the-Line credit for significant decreases in allegations of human rights violations and other abuses by the Border Patrol, and the effort seems to enjoy strong public support, even among the Mexican American community.

But the study also finds that the redeployment of agents causes staffing and morale problems and that the enforcement strategy is not a single, all-purpose solution to stemming large numbers of illegal immigrants crossing U.S. borders.

Indeed, the report found that illegal immigrants intent on long-distance crossings were largely unaffected by the enforcement technique and adapted by finding new routes into the United States.

The report, to be issued by the federal commission today, makes it clear that merely stopping illegal immigration at the border is only one part of a complex problem. "To the extent that Operation Hold-the-Line is successful in curtailing illegal crossings . . . perhaps it will also serve to focus increased attention on the need to facilitate legal crossings," the study found.

For instance, some of the pressure to cross illegally is caused by lengthy delays at legal crossing points, highlighting the need for more Immigration and Naturalization Service administrative personnel, the researchers said.

"What is really needed is borders that work," said Frank D. Bean, leader of the group of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin that performed the study.

Bean, a University of Texas professor of demographics, has been studying immigration policy for 15 years. He previously worked for the Urban Institute in Washington.

He and six other members of the Population Research Center at the Austin campus spent about eight months poring over official records and collecting anecdotal material on the effects of Operation Hold-the-Line.

Although some politicians have called for the INS to launch such an operation at the San Diego border, some immigration officials have said Operation Hold-the-Line is better suited to El Paso's topography and immigrant population and not easily duplicated in Southern California.

The INS, however, has said it intends to bring the strategy to San Diego. Agency officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Operation Hold-the-Line began in September, 1993, and was aimed at a 20-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border between El Paso and Juarez, where illegal crossings were estimated at 8,000 a day. Its original name, Operation Blockade, was dropped because of its negative connotation.

Previously, the Border Patrol there had allowed relatively unhindered movements across the Rio Grande, hoping to intercept illegal crossers already in the city. Under the new strategy, agents saturated the border to cut off illegal immigration at its source.

After the operation began in September, 1993, apprehensions declined from 700 a day to about 200 a day.

The nine-member federal immigration commission, created by the Immigration Act of 1990, has been working for more than two years on a comprehensive report to Congress on a wide range of immigration issues. Chaired by former Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan, the commission report is due Sept. 30.

The commission requested the study on the El Paso program because it was concerned about a lack of hard data on the new, preventive border strategy.

"The commission is going through the study very carefully," said Susan Martin, the group's executive director. "We had received some preliminary reports on (Operation Hold-the-Line) . . . and it's a pleasant surprise that the Texas team was able to confirm those early findings. They've developed a very clever methodology, and the commission hopes it can be a broader model (to evaluate) other border strategies."

The Texas researchers had to inch toward some of their conclusions.

"You have to take trends into account," said Bean. "There does seem to be a small effect on certain types of crimes, especially property crime. But it's not at all clear that Mexicans were committing these crimes. The decrease may have been caused by a transfer of police units.

"Some of the school findings were even more tentative. (But) when you take four or five indicators together, they start to suggest something."

The nearly 200-page report also found that:

* The deterrent effect seems to have lessened as the operation has continued.

* Some illegal immigrants appear to have changed their daily border-crossing pattern and have extended their stays in El Paso.

* Illegal immigrants who work as street vendors and small-scale, petty criminals have been substantially deterred from crossing.

* Business activity in El Paso and Juarez does not appear to have suffered during the operation.

* The rate of seizure of illegal drugs and other contraband has increased.

The bulk of the report is positive, but the commission also cites several potential problem areas.

The study concluded that Operation Hold-the-Line was better at controlling localized immigration patterns in El Paso but ineffective at slowing long-distance labor migration.

The toll on Border Patrol agents was significant. The strategy locks agents into long periods of inactivity in fixed holding positions, causing boredom and anxiety, the study found.

The saturation strategy is very labor-intensive and has "stretched to the limit the ability of the El Paso sector to carry out (its) functions," researchers said.

Long before the commission released the study's findings, Operation Hold-the-Line had caught the attention of California politicians.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) has been a leader in sealing the Mexican border by building better access roads and an improved border fence. In September, he called on Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to replicate Operation Hold-the-Line along the San Diego-Tijuana border.

"The success of the El Paso operation demonstrates that it is possible to seal the border," Hunter said. "For years naysayers have said that what has been accomplished in El Paso was impossible."

Holding the Line

Here are selected findings from a study on Operation Hold-the-Line, a tough, preventive Border Patrol strategy to stop illegal immigration in El Paso. The report is to be released today by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

PROS

* Illegal crossings have been substantially deterred.

* Illegal immigrants engaged in street vending and small-scale crime have been discouraged from crossing border.

* Charges of human rights violations by the Border Patrol have declined.

* The strategy has broad public support, including from the Mexican American community.

* The operation has led to small declines in school enrollment and numbers of births.

CONS

* Long-distance labor migration has shifted to other border crossings.

* Seems more effective at deterring temporary crossers whose destinations are U.S. border communities.

* Redeployment and longer individual shifts have eroded morale among agents.

* Strategy is labor-intensive and expansion of program would stretch present resources.

* Deterrent effect has lessened as operation continues.

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