September 8, 2000

INS: Is Gatekeeper Working?

The INS changed its strategy to prevent illegal migration over the Mexico-US border in 1994. Instead of trying to apprehend all migrants detected, the INS sought to deter attempts at entry by stationing large numbers of agents visibly along the border and using lights, fences and other obstructions to funnel persons attempting unauthorized entry to places where they were likely to be caught. That INS strategy is often referred to as Operation Gatekeeper, the INS name for the program along the California-Mexico border.

There are three places in which to look for evidence that Gatekeeper is working or is not: in the US labor markets in which newly arrived unauthorized migrants typically find jobs, in INS apprehension and other border data, and in the areas of Mexico from which most migrants come. The INS has not yet produced an analysis of Gatekeeper, but the General Accounting Office (GAO), which is required to report annually to Congress on how well the INS's border strategy is working, concluded in May 1999 that "available data do not yet answer the fundamental question of how effective the strategy has been in preventing and deterring illegal entry."

The GAO noted that: (1) apprehensions decreased in sectors such as San Diego and El Paso, where the new strategy has been in place the longest, and increased in Arizona, where it was implemented most recently; (2) more foreigners are being caught trying to enter the US with false or no documents (by claiming to be US citizens), suggesting that more difficult conditions crossing between ports of entry encouraged especially women and children to try to enter through ports of entry; and (3) that smugglers have become more professional and sophisticated, and smuggling fees have risen, as a result of increased INS effectiveness.

The increasing use of smugglers has several possible effects on unauthorized entries. The fact that most migrants expect to use a coyote or smuggler to cross the border illegally suggests that Gatekeeper has been able to stop casual migrants. However, use of coyotes may also: (1) increase the probability of eluding the Border Patrol; and (2) encourage more repeat attempts by migrants, since smugglers often provide a guarantee that the migrant will be taken into the US repeatedly until he eludes the Border Patrol. On the other hand, the US Attorney can prosecute recidivists, although there is little evidence the Border Patrol is processing recidivist cases unless the migrant: (1) has been formally removed (deported) from the US; or (2) has been caught a dozen times or more.

The May 1999 report said there were no reliable data to indicate whether Mexicans in the interior of Mexico contemplating an unauthorized trip to the US were deterred from setting out for the border or, once apprehended, whether they attempted re-entry or returned to their homes.

One benefit of Gatekeeper is that the quality of life in U.S. border communities in which there are fewer unauthorized entries seems to have improved. There is less petty crime and fewer migrants are running across private property in the San Diego and El Paso areas. In an interview with the Arizona Republic in August 2000, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said that the INS believed that once migrants were forced away from cities and into the deserts, "the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what it's like."

Arizona is the favored spot for smuggling migrants into the US in summer 2000. Between October 1, 1999 and August 3, 2000, Border Patrol agents in Douglas, Arizona, apprehended 242,647 illegal entrants, a 49 percent increase over the 166,447 apprehensions for the same dates in fiscal year 1999. In mid-August 2000, an Arizona rancher shot and wounded a Mexican migrant.

There have been more deaths along the border, as 305 migrants not prepared to cross deserts died between October 1, 1999 and August 18, 2000.

The INS in August 2000 announced a new anti-smuggling effort, Operation Denial, involving the assignment of agents to airports in Phoenix and Las Vegas and to land routes between these airports and the border to disrupt smuggling networks. The INS hopes that preventing smuggled migrants from flying out of Phoenix and Las Vegas, will cause safe houses to fill up, preventing more migrants from arriving.

The best data thus far indicate that adding 4,000 additional agents since 1995 and doubling border control expenditures did not reduce illegal entries significantly. It did increase: (1) the percentage of males and the share of migrants who used smugglers to enter the US; and (2) lengthened the average duration of illegal stays in the US.

Smuggling could become a major business. At a cost of $1,000 for each trip, smuggling a million migrants a year across the Mexico-US border would be a $1 billion annual business.

Stepped-up border enforcement has not slowed the entrance of newly arrived and often unauthorized migrants into industries and occupations in which they predominate, such as agriculture and farm work. The percentage of workers on US crop farms who are estimated to be unauthorized, about 52 percent in 1997-98, is believed to be rising by two to four percent a year. There appears to be little upward pressure on piece rate wages, for instance, $10 for picking a 1,000-pound bin of apples.

Average hourly earnings in agriculture are rising, which some observers say can happen even if piece-rate wages are stable if: (1) hours of work are underreported; or (2) the work force changes to include more young men who work faster.

In the early 1970s, when illegal immigration was perceived as increasing, and US expenditures on border controls were rising, commissions and study groups were formed that recommended the introduction of employer sanctions to "close the labor market door" to migrants seeking US jobs. To win acceptance of that remedy, and to preclude roundups of unauthorized residents, sanctions were coupled with a broad amnesty for unauthorized residents in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Thirty years later, the search is again for an alternative to a continued buildup of Border Patrol agents, with the side effects of more smugglers and more migrant deaths. CONAPO, the Mexican population agency, projects that the number of Mexican-born persons in the US will increase from about eight million in 2000 to 11 to 12 million in 2010, which suggests little change in the effectiveness of enforcement.

Commuters/Checkpoints. The INS is introducing a border commuter lane in San Ysidro, the major Mexico-US border crossing point south of San Diego. After undergoing background checks and paying a $129 annual fee, commuters can get a magnetic card that allows them to approach the US border via special lanes that are watched by camera, insert a card and enter the US in a few minutes, rather than endure the 30- to 60-minute waits common at regular border-entry lanes.

In 1995, the INS opened the first border commuter lane in Otay Mesa, six miles east of San Ysidro. In 1999, another was introduced in El Paso. Mexico-US cooperation is needed to revamp traffic on the Mexican side of the border so that commuters can avoid backups and quickly reach commuter lanes.

There are two Border Patrol checkpoints 70 miles north of the border in San Diego county, one on Interstate 5 south of San Clemente and the other on Interstate 15 at Temecula. There, motorists wait 30 minutes or more to be cleared through checkpoints that experts say do little to deter smuggling. Apprehensions at these border checkpoints have dropped sharply since Gatekeeper. Most smugglers use cell phones and move people and cargo on weekend afternoons, when the traffic is so heavy that the Border Patrol closes the checkpoints to avoid delays of one hour or more.

(Story was provided by MIGRATION NEWS Vol. 7, No. 9, September, 2000.)

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