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INS: Border policy failed Sherrie Buzby/The Arizona Republic

INS commissioner Doris Meissner announces new crackdown on immigrant smuggling in Arizona and Nevada.

Tessie Borden The Arizona Republic Aug. 10, 2000

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service policy of gradually funneling the flow of illegal border crossers from Mexico through the Arizona desert has failed to deter them, resulting instead in immigrant deaths, the head of the agency said.

U.S. Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner came to Phoenix to kick off a new enforcement plan Wednesday aimed at smugglers using the Phoenix and Las Vegas airport hubs to distribute immigrants nationwide.

But in an interview Tuesday with The Arizona Republic, Meissner acknowledged that the U.S. Border Patrol's border-control strategy has failed in part in Arizona.

"We did believe that geography would be an ally to us," Meissner said. "It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what (it's) like."

Since 1993, the INS has implemented a series of measures aimed at closing illegal crossings on specific parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In El Paso, Operation Hold the Line produced a 50 percent decline in apprehensions from 1993 to 1996, according to INS figures. In San Diego, Operation Gatekeeper stationed Border Patrol agents just yards from each other in a row facing Mexico.

Those two operations began shifting the current of immigrants so it funneled through the border at Arizona, where the INS began Operation Safeguard in 1995.

Enforcement began in Nogales and Douglas, and the aim was to cover the easy crossings and drive the immigrants to the outskirts of the towns, where officials believed they would be easier to spot and catch. Meissner said officials also believed the sheer harshness of the Arizona desert would discourage would-be border crossers from attempting the journey. Instead, they stampeded through it, often unprepared for the searing heat and lack of water. More than 75 people have died in the Arizona desert since the beginning of the year.

"We found that the shift occurred in great numbers," Meissner said. "We found ourselves less prepared in the inhospitable desert areas than we wished to be."

Still, Meissner said she believes a large part of the operations to close the border has succeeded, and it is now the job of the Border Patrol to focus on safety for themselves and the immigrants. Hence, Operation Skywatch, which has moved airplanes and helicopters to the border area to help search for and rescue stranded immigrants. Border Patrol units trained in such rescues also now patrol the area on the ground and in the air.

But Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, who has seen the problem up close during the past several years as immigrants stream through his town, believes that approach is shortsighted and wrong-headed.

"To me, it's like throwing a young child in the swimming pool, exposing him to the danger, and then saying that we have a method for rescuing that child," he said. "We're saying we have a method of rescuing these people after we've forced them out there."

Borane called Meissner's comments "sinister" and the policy "ridiculous," saying the Clinton administration has been wrong to lay the problem on the shoulders of Meissner and the INS.

"She's upholding such a failed policy," Borane said. "She's like a general in the field, being asked to control the border because that's the only policy the administration has come up with to deal with immigration."

Indeed, many in Arizona, including Gov. Jane Hull, have long pushed for a systemic solution to the problem: A work-permit program that would allow immigrants to work in the United States for limited periods. Many have compared such a possibility to the braceros program the U.S. government put in place between the 1930s and 1960s.

Meissner said the administration opposes a guest-worker program and said it was not perfect.

"Braceros was rife with abuses," Meissner said.

She said she wants to use existing laws to bring in foreign workers, but they require employers to pay them a living wage and protect their rights. But Francie Noyes, a Hull spokeswoman, said the program can be improved upon.

"If you have a new program, it would be better than what it was in the past," she said. "You don't duplicate the mistakes of the past."

Borane said the lack of a legal program is leading to abuses by employers who now hire people with no status, then refuse to pay them.

Noyes said Hull wants a gradual answer focusing first on vigorous border enforcement, second on a revamped guest-worker program, and third on encouraging cross-border development.

"They need to deal with the whole problem," Noyes said. "And you need all three of those to do it."

-- K (, August 10, 2000

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