The Glass Is Half Full on the Border

Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

No less an authority than the head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has officially declared the border south of San Diego--long believed to be the busiest corridor for illegal entry to this country--under control.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner made her noteworthy--if debatable--announcement last week when she also revealed that the U.S. Border Patrol, INS' uniformed arm, will get a big personnel increase. Another 1,000 agents will be assigned to duty along the southern frontier, Meissner said. But not one of them will be assigned to the infamous border sector that runs from the Pacific Ocean to Otay Mesa.

"We believe that the San Diego sector in California has reached a level of control," Meissner said in explaining why more than 800 of the new agents will be assigned to Texas and New Mexico. "We don't see a need for increased personnel in San Diego."

Meissner did add that 134 more agents will be assigned to INS' El Centro sector, which covers the mountains east of Otay Mesa and the deserts that reach from there to Arizona. That forbidding terrain has seen an increase in illegal border crossings in the last couple of years, even as apprehensions of illegal entrants declined in San Diego, from 531,689 in 1993 to 284,000 last year--due not just to increased Border Patrol staffing, but to other deterrents, including stronger fencing and more powerful lighting.

The symbolism of the San Diego sector is really what made Meissner's announcement significant. Over the last 20 years, as immigration has evolved into a major political issue in this country, San Diego's borderlands provided the most vivid media images of an immigration system out of control.

Hundreds of writers, including yours truly, and many more camera crews, visited that sector regularly to record the Border Patrol's seemingly futile work. The most junior journalist could stake out the residential streets and commercial blocks that go right up to "the fence" and come away with dramatic anecdotes and pictures of U.S. officers chasing Mexicans trying to sneak in from Tijuana.

Problem was, the San Diego picture did not really represent what was happening in illegal immigration. While the cat-and-mouse game got media attention, INS statistics consistently showed that more illegal immigrants were coming into the U.S. through airports, seaports and land crossings far from San Diego. And only about half of those illegal immigrants were from Mexico.

But where the media focus attention, politicians soon follow. Nobody ever bothered to add it up, but the number of ambitious pols who trekked to San Diego to have their pictures taken--preferably standing by, clucking in approval, while the Border Patrol did its work--may have outnumbered journalists.

Not surprisingly, several California politicians who know how well Mexico-bashing plays with some voters were quick to challenge Meissner's report on the San Diego sector. The 40% drop in the number of people caught is still not enough, they said, demanding even more Border Patrol agents until San Diego is fully secured.

But if those politicians would look at the bigger picture on immigration, they would see that more Border Patrol agents is not the answer, because bigger social and economic factors are at work.

An article in the March-April issue of American Prospect magazine by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Douglas S. Massey, for instance, suggests that the border crackdown may actually be exacerbating this country's immigration challenges. Highly publicized campaigns like Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, he says, may have helped transform the traditionally circular migratory pattern of Mexican workers into a one-way street.

"Migrants otherwise disposed to return [to Mexico] have been given strong new incentives to remain north of the border to avoid the gauntlet erected at the border," Massey writes, "and, in the end, U.S. policies have increased the stock of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States."

Massey is not the first immigration researcher to suggest this might be happening. And his article goes on to propose some other provocative theses, like the possibility that Mexican migration to the United States is driven less by poverty south of the border, or by welfare and other social programs in the United States, than it is by economic policies supported by both the Mexican and U.S. governments, like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA is another issue, of course, but Massey's article does serve as a useful reminder of the complexity of the Mexican migration phenomenon. And it also suggests that bringing an end to illegal immigration, from Mexico or anywhere else, is a lot more complicated than either Meissner or her immigrant-bashing critics might want the public to believe.

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