Scripps Howard News Service
In south Texas, apprehensions of undocumented immigrants have more than doubled — with most migrants fleeing crime and instability in Central America. The region is also becoming the undisputed hot spot for drug and human smuggling.
And Brooks County, Texas, is the new epicenter for migrant deaths in the unforgiving brush country.
Yet in a region where local law enforcement, private property owners and even border patrol agents have clamored for guest worker programs, more personnel and more technology to thwart these floods, the border security surge that forms a key part of
immigration reforms now before the House might cause even more problems.
Among the potential unintended consequences: Will a larger force be more susceptible to corruption? Will greater numbers reduce migrant deaths or push border crossers into ever more remote and more deadly terrain? Is such a massive ramp-up in force even necessary if the bill’s other reforms successfully reduce illegal immigration by providing better pathways to work and citizenship?
In the Senate version of the reforms, which the House now is wrangling with, more than $46 billion in new border security is earmarked, including a near doubling the size of the Border Patrol with 20,000 more agents and another 350 miles of new fencing. Flying drones for surveillance and ground-based camera and sensors also would be added.
An increase in the deaths of people trying to sneak into the country is projected, as a result of what’s called the ”funnel effect,” some experts say.
“We’re just going to see extension of what we call the funnel effect — redistribution of migrant flows into more remote areas,” said Daniel Martmnez, assistant professor of sociology at George Washington University.
That was the result of tightened enforcement in southern Arizona and El Paso in the 1990s and early 2000s, analysts say. Martmnez co-authored a study published in June by the University of Arizona showing how surges in deaths corresponded to tightened enforcement -- and how deaths increased even as overall migration fell to a 40-year low.
In Brooks County, where illegal immigrants were pushed by border crackdowns elsewhere along the border, there were a record 129 deaths in 2012, a 93-percent increase. And the rugged county is on pace to tie or break that high this year. The immigrants get lost, run out of food and water, and succumb to the heat; and if they fall behind for any reason, or can’t keep up, their smugglers simply leave them behind.
If an improving U.S. construction sector tugs at Central Americans, the threat of a funnel effect that could push the migrants even farther from U.S. Highway 281, site of the Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias, raises the specter of more deaths and gives human rights groups pause as they consider the legislation.
“People who are champions for immigration rights are starting to take a look at this bill and starting to take a step back from it,” Martmnez said.
The problems that have plagued Brooks County authorities — where the small sheriff’s office is overextended dealing with death, rape and assaults tied to human smuggling — could expand to other local governments that are similarly unprepared, Martmnez said.
Proponents of the border security upgrades say the deployment of 1,000 new rescue beacons — solar-powered towers with blinking lights that give distressed migrants access to Border Patrol rescuers at the touch of a button — can prevent more deaths. The beacons can be moved from place to place with changing migration patterns.
In theory, new beacons will prevent more deaths.
The Rio Grande Valley border sector now has eight beacons, mostly in Brooks County. Border Patrol rescued 35 people at aouth Texas beacons in fiscal year 2012 and 19 so far in 2013, spokesman Danny Tirado said.
But deploying more beacons may be difficult in practice. Unlike Arizona, where federal agents and aid groups have free rein over vast swaths of public lands, Brooks County is entirely fenced by ranchers who value their privacy. Some adamantly do not want agents tramping on their land.
The reasons for the holdouts are many, including a historical, deep-rooted distrust of government, fear of retaliation from smugglers — and even cooperation with the smugglers. In July, Amadeo Salinas-Herrerra, 72, pleaded guilty to smuggling 40 immigrants in one day across a Brooks County ranch where he worked as a hand, charging $20 per person, according to a criminal complaint. Witnesses told investigators that Border Patrol agents weren’t allowed on that ranch, which lies adjacent to Highway 281.
It’s possible that beefing up Border Patrol’s ranks could prevent most migrants from ever making it this far, if the agency can reach the 90-percent borderwide apprehension goal and surveillance of 100 percent of the border as called for in the reform bill.
But the union that represents Border Patrol agents isn’t so sure staffing is the answer.
“We seem to fall back on this manpower-intensive strategy where we’re all going to hold hands from Brownsville to Imperial Beach (Calif.),” like a 2,000-mile-long version of the children’s game Red Rover, said Shawn Moran, an agent in California and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing more than 17,000 agents.
Moran said the union appreciates what the amendment tried to do, but the union preferred other measures that would add fewer agents but use them more efficiently by changing how the agency manages overtime.
Doris Meissner, who directed what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton, said the agency will be under pressure to train new recruits rapidly at about 2,000 per year.
There could be more improper use of force and corruption, with smugglers finding it more difficult to avoid detection then turning to corruptible agents for help, said Meissner, who now is director of immigration policy at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
The Border Patrol already has doubled its force already since 2005, she noted, but that was for five years. The new bill calls for a sustained buildup over 10 years.
Bottom line, though, Marinez, Meissner, union officials, some ranchers and many others with long experience with the border as a back door to the U.S. say it is economic and social forces that will continue to drive migration, regardless of any deterrents and the dangers of the trip.
“Regardless of what security measures are put up, I’m going to say they’re still going to keep coming,” said Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinex.