By Elliot Spagat
SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Border Patrol is moving to halt a revolving-door policy of dropping illegal migrants from Mexico at the nearest border crossing without any punishment, aiming to prevent their immediate return with measures ranging from federal prosecution to sending them to unfamiliar border cities.
The agency this month is overhauling its approach on migrants caught illegally crossing the 1,954-mile (3,145-kilometer) border the United States shares with Mexico. After years of enormous growth in staff and technology, it feels it now has enough of a handle on the issue to begin imposing more serious consequences on almost everyone it catches.
The number of agents since 2004 has more than doubled to 21,000. The Border Patrol has blanketed one-third of the border with fences and other physical barriers, and spent heavily on cameras, sensors and other gizmos. Major advances in fingerprinting technology have vastly improved intelligence on border-crossers.
Apprehensions are at a 40-year low: In the 2011 fiscal year, border agents made 327,577 apprehensions on the Mexican border, down 80 percent from more than 1.6 million in 2000. It was the Border Patrol's slowest year since 1971.
It's a far cry from just a few years ago. Older agents remember being so overmatched that they powerlessly watched migrants cross illegally, minutes after catching them and dropping them off at the nearest border crossing. Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher, who joined the Border Patrol in 1987, recalls apprehending the same migrant 10 times in his eight-hour shift as a young agent.
The "Consequence Delivery System" — a key part of the Border Patrol's new national strategy to be announced within weeks — relies largely on tools that have been rolled out over the past decade on parts of the border and expanded. It divides border crossers into seven categories, ranging from first-time offenders to people with criminal records.
Punishments vary by region but there is a common thread: Simply turning people around after taking their fingerprints is the choice of last resort. Some, including children and the medically ill, will still get a free pass by being turned around at the nearest border crossing, but they will be few and far between.
"What we want to be able to do is make that the exception and not necessarily the norm," Fisher told The Associated Press.
One tool used during summers in Arizona involves flying migrants to Mexico City, where they get one-way bus tickets to their hometowns. Another releases them to Mexican authorities for prosecution south of the border. One puts them on buses to return to Mexico in another border city that may be hundreds of miles away.
In the past, migrants caught in Douglas, Arizona, were given a bologna sandwich and orange juice before being taken back to Mexico at the same location on the same afternoon, Fisher said. Now, they may spend the night at an immigration detention facility near Phoenix and eventually return to Mexico through Del Rio, Texas, more than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) away.
Those migrants are effectively cut off from the smugglers who helped them cross the border, whose typical fees have skyrocketed to between $3,200 and $3,500 and are increasingly demanding payment upfront instead of after crossing, Fisher said. At minimum, they will have to wait longer to try again as they raise money to pay another smuggler.
"What used to be hours and days is now being translated into days and weeks," said Fisher.
The new strategy was first introduced a year ago in the office at Tucson, Arizona, the patrol's busiest corridor for illegal crossings.
The long-standing practice of turning migrants straight around without any punishment, known as "voluntary returns," ranked least expensive — and least effective.
Agents got color-coded, wallet-sized cards — also made into posters at Border Patrol stations — that tells them what to do with each category of offender. For first-time violators, prosecution is a good choice, with one-way flights to Mexico City also scoring high. For known smugglers, prosecution in Mexico is the top pick.
In Southern California, the U.S. attorney's office doesn't participate in a widely used Border Patrol program that prosecutes even first-time offenders with misdemeanors punishable by up to six months in custody, opting instead to pursue only felonies for the most egregious cases, including serial border-crossers and criminals.
Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, said limited resources, including lack of jail space, force her to make choices.
"It has not been the practice (in California) to target and prosecute economic migrants who have no criminal histories, who are coming in to the United States to work or to be with their families," Duffy said. "We do target the individuals who are smuggling those individuals."
Fisher would like to refer more cases for prosecution south of the border, but the Mexican government can only prosecute smugglers: smuggling migrants is a crime in Mexico but there is nothing wrong about crossing illegally to the United States. It also said its resources were stretched on some parts of the border.
Criticism of the Border Patrol's new tactics is guaranteed to persist as the new strategy goes into effect at other locations. Some say immigration cases are overwhelming federal courts on the border at the expense of investigations into white-collar crime, public corruption and other serious threats. Others consider prison time for first-time offenders to be excessively harsh.
The Border Patrol also may be challenged when the U.S. economy recovers, creating jobs that may encourage more illegal crossings. Still, many believe heightened U.S. enforcement and an aging population in Mexico that is benefiting from a relatively stable economy will keep migrants away.
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press