Pressure Point

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The southernmost regions of Arizona have become America's forgotten border.
Forgotten, that is, unless you--as an Arizona resident and taxpayer--must pay the price of border neglect.

@body:Immigration is a game of numbers, and the numbers are astounding. In past years, the Border Patrol office in Nogales would consider itself overworked if it apprehended 2,500 illegal aliens a month. In February, however, officers gathered up more than 10,000 illegals.

"It's just incredible," says border agent and spokesman Steve McDonald, noting that the "Tucson sector" of the border--which includes the entirety of the Arizona line except for the Yuma area--is on a pace that would net 125,000 or more illegal aliens in 1994, up by about 30,000 from the previous year.

At first glance, one would think that the high number of captures shows that the Border Patrol is doing an extraordinary job. In truth, the patrol's only catching more aliens because there are so many more there to be caught.

"What you've got to remember," says McDonald, "is that these days we probably only apprehend one in five. Optimistic estimates are that we catch one in three. Do the math yourself to figure out what that means."
It means that if illegals continue their northern march at their current rate, 500,000 may enter Arizona this year--with most evading capture. While many are just passing through--or return home voluntarily--that's a throng equal to one-eighth of Arizona's permanent residents.

Many are earnest, hardworking Mexican families who come to Arizona for jobs and end up being exploited unmercifully by employers. Others come to do the exploiting, dropping comfortably into the American social safety net.

The extreme human and societal costs of this wave are clearly apparent in towns like Nogales. But the pernicious effects of this invasion are hardly confined to the small border burgs. The Arizona Governor's Office has estimated that the cost for dealing with illegal aliens statewide--providing everything from health care to jail space--totals $100 million a year.

The money flows out from a hundred different state and county agencies--those providing welfare, food stamps, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, schools. The largest expense is laid at the door of the state prison system, whose spokesmen say incarcerating almost 1,600 Mexican citizens costs more than $20 million a year.

Health care is another major expense. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System reports that there are 2,792 illegals on state rolls, costing $4.7 million per year. And it is those who aren't part of the state's health plan who are most likely running up even bigger health-care debts--by flooding county emergency rooms.

Immigration, while being a federal responsibility, is a state problem. When the feds fail to control the flow of immigrants over the border, it is the state that pays the price.

But the federal government, at least by its own definition, isn't failing. In fact, it claims a stunning success.

@body:According to the Border Patrol, illegal immigrants are coming to Arizona in droves because of something called the "Balloon Effect," and it works like this: When the patrol puts pressure on one area of the southern frontier, effectively blocking alien traffic into the United States, the traffic pops up elsewhere; just like the bulges that appear in a balloon when it is squeezed.

The squeezing, at the moment, is going on in the far west at San Diego, where a 14-mile-long steel wall running from the Pacific Ocean inland has made it dramatically more difficult to scamper over the border from Tijuana. In the eastern-border sectors, pressure is also being applied at El Paso, where Operation Hold the Line--a program that places hundreds of well-armed officers directly on the border 24 hours a day--has, by some estimates, reduced illegal immigration from Jurez by half.

San Diego and El Paso were not assigned the thousands of border agents and millions of dollars necessary to build a wall and Hold the Line at random. According to Duke Austin, the Border Patrol's Washington-based spokesman, the programs, conceived in the late 1980s, were put in place because the two locations were the sites of the largest immigrant flows.

Illegals were attracted to the areas because of the "Melting Factor," Austin explains.

"It is easy for illegals to just melt away and disappear when they cross over into major metropolitan areas like El Paso and San Diego," he says.

So the Border Patrol came up with a plan.
"The thinking was that if we could drive them away from populated areas, out into the desert and small towns along the border, they would be easier to isolate and catch. It is much easier to deal with a sustained, verifiable flow of illegals through a rural area than a city.

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Darrin Hostetler