El Paso, Texas– The ambitious high-tech fence built nearly four years ago by the federal government along the southwest border to curb the flood of undocumented immigrants is proving to be an unexpected gateway for Mexicans fleeing drug violence in their country.
A recent visit to the 81-mile stretch of dusty desert country which makes up U.S. Border Patrol's “El Paso” sector turned up evidence that the fence is doing the job it was designed for. According to Border Patrol figures, the number of apprehensions of undocumented aliens in that sector has plummeted from 122, 260 in 2006 (just before the fence was completed) to 14,999 in 2009?suggesting that the new fence is acting as a powerful deterrent to the human traffickers who once treated the border here as a sieve.
“There is no doubt the fence is working,” says Special Border Patrol Agent Valeria Morales, a seven-year veteran of the agency, adding the number of apprehensions is continuing to drop this year, with an average 700 monthly interdictions since the beginning of 2010.
But since the 18-foot-high rust-colored fence went up, there has also been an uptick in Mexican requests for political asylum in the U.S. in that sector, which includes the busy El Paso-Juarez crossing point.
Driving the increase is Mexico's spreading epidemic of drug violence. Mexicans living along this part of the border are threatened by the powerful drug cartels that have turned the border city of Juarez into what observers dub “the murder capital of the world.” There have been at least 5,000 recorded homicides over the past three years.
Officially, border patrol agents are reluctant to draw a direct link between the fence and the increase in asylum requests at the El Paso crossing. But the newly secure border represents an inviting symbol of sanctuary.
Although statistics show that the vast majority of undocumented border-crossers do not get involved in criminal activity once they make it to the U.S., the fence has effectively also served as a barrier to the small proportion of criminals who joined them. It may be no coincidence that the city of El Paso itself has reported that the decline in crime rates that began in 1993 with a federal strategy to deploy more agents at the border has accelerated since the fence went up.
The Washington, DC-based CQ Press has awarded El Paso the title of second safest city in the US., in 2008-2009 based on data compiled from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report on murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, and auto theft.
Safe El Paso is now a magnet for Mexicans seeking respite from the violence that now plagues their communities.
“I see this trend increasing because of the violence,” declares Morales. “These people are like war refugees in some circumstances.”
The statistics track these developments. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 1,366 Mexicans sought asylum in the U.S. in 2006. In 2008 the number jumped to 2,231, reflecting the escalation of drug-related violence over that period.
Anecdotes as well illustrate how deeply the violence has impacted this part of the border. In March, 30 people from El Porvenir, a violence-riddled village just across the line from Fort Hancock, Texas (in the El Paso sector), crossed en masse into the U.S. side. They all filed requests for asylum, claiming threats against their lives by drug cartels.
The threat is credible. The once-booming city of Juarez has turned into a virtual ghost town, with streets virtually empty during the day. Assaults, kidnappings and extortions are daily occurrences, and law enforcement and security forces are either unable or too corrupt to provide respite.
U.S. immigration authorities, however, do not generally consider threats from the drug cartels sufficient cause to grant asylum. Only 123 of the 2,000-plus asylum seekers in 2008 were allowed to stay. According to immigration statutes, asylum is granted when a direct threat is established and there is no other safe place to go in the petitioner's homeland.
Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of the fence would lose their skepticism after a ride along the border. I recently joined Special Agent Morales for a first-hand look.
The fence was covered with metal mesh so narrow it was nearly impossible to squeeze a finger through. That's a major problem for drug traffickers who once found it easy to break through the rusty barbed wire that once separated downtown El Paso from Juarez.
Its deterrent value is assisted in no small part by the increase in Border Patrol numbers in this sector. With the end of a hiring freeze, some 2,500 new agents have been assigned here –doubling the force in less than three years. .
Opponents of the fence continue to claim its overall effectiveness is questionable.
“People still try to climb (the new fence),” admits Morales, who adds that illegal crossings have increased in border areas that are not covered by the fence.
But its role in reducing crime on the U.S. side of the border has apparently given some endangered Mexican citizens new reason for hope.
Joe Kolb is editor and publisher of the Gallup (New Mexico) Herald
Photo by jonathan macintosh via Flickr.