Amid concerns that Mexico's economic crisis may spark an increase in illegal immigration, the Clinton administration yesterday announced it will reinforce border controls this year by hiring more than 1,200 new Border Patrol agents, Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors and other personnel.
"With the resource allocations that we are announcing here today, we will complete our plan to take control of the entire Southwest border," Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick said at a news conference here.
Senior administration officials insisted that the border initiative represents a major success story on a politically volatile issue. Since Wednesday Attorney General Janet Reno has been on a four-day, barnstorming tour of California, Arizona and Texas that includes seven separate news conferences to announce the new resources.
After initially calling for a cut in Border Patrol strength in 1993, the administration reversed its position and committed itself to a border crackdown last February, largely in response to demands from Republicans in Congress. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) received an unprecedented 25 percent increase in its budget for the current fiscal year through last summer's crime bill and other legislation.
With 800 new agents, the Border Patrol will grow to a total of 5,000 agents by the end of this year, but the new Republican leadership appears likely to seek even greater deployments. Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, said in a recent interview he plans to reintroduce a proposal he first proposed last year with the cosponsorship of Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the new House speaker, that would expand the Border Patrol to 10,000 agents.
Although President Clinton is due to submit his budget proposals for the next fiscal year in early February, Gorelick said the administration was still trying to determine what funding it would seek for immigration controls.
"We believe that additional resources may well be needed," Gorelick said. But determining how much more might be needed, she added, "is not scientific. We are doing something that has never done before, which is to try to secure a border that has never been secure."
The deployments announced yesterday included only 65 new Border Patrol agents for the El Paso sector, 135 fewer than had been requested by local Border Patrol chief Silvestre Reyes. He has become a hero among advocates of tougher border controls and is widely credited with developing the strategy that underlies the administration's initiative.
On his own authority Reyes launched "Operation Hold the Line" in September 1993 with a substantial show of force on the levees of the Rio Grande. Both the administration and its critics depict the operation as an overwhelming success.
In explaining why El Paso is receiving a relatively small share of the new agents, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner told the news conference that the illegal traffic appeared to shifting toward southeastern Texas. The bulk of the 300 new agents deployed in Texas would go there, she said.
The new Border Patrol deployments come at a time of growing concern that the United States may face a new wave of illegal immigration due to the Mexico's economic crisis.
Although she said the stunning 35 percent devaluation of the peso in late December had yet to produce a notable change in migrant flows, Meissner said, "it of course will increase the economic pressures on the people of Mexico."
The devaluation makes migration "a much more attractive economic endeavor because the dollars sent home by people working in the United States buy so much more in Mexico," said J. Edward Taylor, economist at the University of California, Davis, who has done extensive studies of rural Mexico.
In contrast, Jorge Bustamante, director of the College of the Northern Border, a Tijuana-based think tank, argued that the devaluation raised the costs of getting to the United States.
"Paying off smugglers, transportation, living expenses while looking for work in the United States -- all of these things are paid for with dollars and they have suddenly become much more expensive," Bustamante said, noting numerous studies that show these costs exercise considerable influence over the volume of traffic across the border.
In the long run much will depend on how the crisis affects unemployment and inflation in Mexico, said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a visiting scholar at the Inter-American Development Bank. "There is no reason to expect the kind of protracted, deep structural crisis which produced a great increase in migration in the 1980s," he said.
All of the experts agree that the sluggish California economy may have as much of an influence on illegal immigration as anything that happens in Mexico. "People coming home saying they could not find work is probably the greatest deterrent," Bustamante said.