By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ
Associated Press Writer
SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO, Mexico- The arrival of U.S. National Guard troops has scared off illegal Mexican migrants along the Arizona border, traditionally the busiest crossing spot, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.Authorities said detentions in the U.S. Border Patrol's Yuma and Tucson sectors, which cover the Arizona-Mexico border, dropped 23 percent so far this month _ to 9,203 since June 1, compared with 11,949 for the same period a year ago.
The desert region's blistering June temperatures typically drive down the number of migrants, but not so drastically, said Mario Martinez, a spokesman with the U.S. Border Patrol in Washington.
The 55 soldiers who arrived June 3 are the first of some 6,000 troops to be gradually dispatched all along the border as part of U.S. President George W. Bush's plan to stem illegal immigration to the United States.
The soldiers aren't allowed to detain migrants and have been limited to projects like extending border fences and repairing roads, but the military's presence is keeping would-be crossers away from the area, migrant rights activists said.
"Some migrants have told me they heard about the troops on television and, because the U.S. Army doesn't have a very good reputation, they prefer not to cross," said Francisco Loureiro, who runs a migrant shelter in Nogales, Mexico, across the border from Arizona.
Loureiro said the shelter was housing about 12 migrants a night, down from about 100.
Jorge Vazquez, coordinator for Mexico's Grupo Beta migrant aid agency in San Luis Rio Colorado, across from San Luis, Arizona, said that before the troops arrived, his agents encountered at least two dozens migrants daily, most waiting for nightfall to begin their trek through the sandy desert.
"There have been days ... when we've found only three migrants," Vazquez said.
It was unclear whether the downturn in illegal crossings will last _ or whether migrants were simply moving on to other areas. U.S. officials do not yet have June detention figures for the rest of the 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border.
Wearing army fatigues and hard hats, the soldiers have worked on projects such as installing vehicle barriers to help prevent smugglers from driving cars full of migrants or drugs across the border.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has said that 2,500 troops will be stationed in the four U.S. border states _ Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas _ by the end of the month.
The deployment plan has been criticized in Mexico as heavy-handed, and the Mexican government has said it will watch to ensure National Guard troops aren't detaining migrants.
Only the most persistent migrants remained in San Luis Rio Colorado, which sits across from the area patrolled by the U.S. Border Patrol's Yuma station, the busiest of the Patrol's 143 outposts.
Migrants in the region walk some 25 miles (40 kilometers) through the scrub-covered desert with summer temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius), and then hop on cargo trains to reach their destination.
Laureano Miranda, a 37-year-old farm worker from Mexico's Sinaloa state, said he was trying to get back to a construction job in Los Angeles.
Miranda and six relatives, who were sewing pieces of carpet to their shoes to avoid leaving footprints, planned to wait for nightfall and start walking across the border 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of where the troops were stationed.
Miranda, who earned about US$6 (euro5) a day picking tomatoes in Sinaloa, said he had heard about the deployment but planned to cross into Arizona anyway.
"If there are soldiers or not it's the same thing, because it's always been difficult to cross," Miranda said. "Here, we depend on our luck."
Miranda said he made it into the United States on the first try last year, but he expected a more difficult journey this time.
"We've heard that there are soldiers and armed 'migrant hunters' but we have to try," Miranda said. "If we don't make it in three tries, then we'll go back home."
On the Net:
U.S. National Guard: http://www.arng.army.mil
U.S. Border Patrol: http://www.cbp.gov/