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INS border patrol clamps down.

400 agents, vehicles, helicopters line up along 20-mile strip

EL PASO, Texas -- While Mexican and U.S. officials talk of NAFTA and open, cross-border trade, human rights activists here last week were sizing up a new, hard-fast clampdown of the border along a 20-mile strip separating this city from Juarez Mexico.

Church activists and other critics were depicting the move as a social experiment aimed at convincing the U.S. Congress that with enough money and local policing Mexicans can be kept out of the United States.

So far, the experiment appears to be working. After just one week, border traffic had been cut by 90 percent, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials. Apprehensions have dropped from about 1,000 to 150 a day, said Doug Mosier, an INS spokesman for the service's El Paso sector.

"Operation Blockade," which began Sept. 19, ended at least for now, the era of random patrols. It ushered in an era of concentrated, organized action comprising scores of border patrol vans and helicopters. More than 400 agents are now perched along a strip of land from Ysleta, Texas, to Sunland Park, N.M.

But at a cost: INS officials say they have secured $250,000 from Washington for an initial two-week project. They hope to find more funding to continue the effort.

"The message being sent out (across the border) is we don't want you. We want to participate in economic free trade but don't send your people," said Jose Moreno, executive director of migrant and refugee services for the El Paso diocese.

He and other immigrant rights advocates have roundly condemned the blockade. Moreno said it will only aggravate "bigotry" toward the estimated 10,000 workers who have been illegally crossing into El Paso each day from Juarez, to work before returning at night or at week's end. El Paso's population is 500,000.

Except for two protests by the Mexican Committees of Popular Defense during the first week of the blockade, things have been relatively quiet here since they initiated the patrols, border patrol agents and activists agree.

Mosier told NCR that sector chief Silvestre Reyes deployed the blockade in response to the "community's concerns" about undocumented workers' alleged links to crime, the draining of social services and other unspecified problems.

Mosier cited polls indicating public support for the action. He said "for as long as we possibly can" the patrol would continue Operation Blockade.

But others questioned the level of popular support.

Martin Sanchez, a lawyer with the El Paso-based Border Rights Coalition, made up of church and human rights groups, said two polls were conducted by the English-speaking media and by telephone. This, he said, excluded Spanish-speaking, poor El Pasoans.

"Some of my (El Paso) clients were referring to the blockade as a state of siege, a coup," he said.

Sanchez said many El Pasoans, whose voices went unheard in the polls, must suffer separation from family members who simply come to visit or attend functions such as baptisms.

So far patterns of life in El Paso had not visibly changed much as a result of the action, said attorney Carlos Spector Calderon last week. Calderon is with the Southwest-U.S. border policy group at the University of Texas, El Paso.

He said food-stamp use had not dropped nor had there been a decline in school attendance. (Children of undocumented workers can attend school legally in the United States.) Births and burglaries in the city were actually up, although car thefts were down, he said.

The need to weed out criminals and abusers of social services has been a main argument by El Pasoans favoring the blockade.

Arnoldo Torres, a California activist long involved with lobbying for more open immigration, admonished some blockade foes, including local Latinos, not to downplay anti-immigrant sentiment among local Hispanics. A failure to "respect regional feelings" of Latinos toward the undocumented only makes it more difficult to educate people, Torres said.

Meanwhile, some Juarez residents who relied on the crossings to support their families are desperate, Sanchez said. "The (Border Rights Coalition) hot line has been ringing off the hook" with calls from Juarez workers pleading that their employers be called and asked that jobs not be terminated, he said.

El Diario, the Juarez-based daily newspaper for the Mexican state of Chihuahua, has condemned the blockade. El Paso and Juarez, with a population of 1.5 million, form an "integrated community socially and economically," Willie Valdo del Gadillo, El Diario's city editor, told NCR. "To do something like this is not very respectful of people on either side." He said many poor Juarez vendors have been hurt by the blockade.

Maria Jimenez of the American Friends Service Committee's Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project, based in Houston, said the blockade, by emphasizing deterrence, will likely result in fewer confrontations -- and fewer border patrol abuses. At the same time, the blockade will likely deter U.S. policymakers from seeing the bigger picture, she said.

Jimenez said she believed the blockade was the INS' effort to prove to Washington that given the resources, it could "do the job" without the help of the National Guard or U.S. military, ideas currently being floated in the U.S. Congress.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; Operation Blockade, El Paso, TX-Juarez, Mexico border
Author:Martinez, Demetria
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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