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Government claims partial victory in struggle against illegal immigration

immigrants October 8, 1997
Web posted at: 4:44 a.m. EDT (0844 GMT)

EL CENTRO, California (CNN) -- Mexican illegal immigrants risk their lives to cross the border into the United States, while U.S. Border patrol agents will struggle to the death to keep them out. And while illegal immigrants may yell "freedom" as they cross the border into the United States, for many, that freedom is becoming harder to come by.

Operation Gatekeeper, instituted along San Diego's border with Tijuana, Mexico, is one such attempt to close down the border.

The 14 mile fence, policed by almost 3,000 border patrol agents and armed with the latest technology, has curbed illegal immigration by more than 40 percent, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The "Gatekeeper" has not only resulted in less immigrants crossing the border, but also safer neighborhoods in the area.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said that arrests in the San Diego area -- which once accounted for 45 percent of all Border Patrol arrests nationwide -- are now at their lowest in 17 years.

"Today this border is harder to cross than any time in history," Meissner said.

More than a million hungry illegals flee Mexico yearly

The US-Mexico border

It's estimated that more than a million immigrants sneak into the U.S. from Mexico each year. Many say they do it because their stomachs are empty.

"In Mexico, the pay is very low. It's not enough to eat," said one illegal. "In the United States, you earn a little more."

For years, efforts to curtail the flow of immigrants were largely a failure. On a routine basis, packs of people would run across the border untouched, with border agents and local neighborhoods being overrun.

One San Diego resident says she was afraid.

"Yes, it was scary," she says. "We know that people don't want to make trouble with the neighbors but sometimes it was scary."

But three years ago, Operation Gatekeeper got underway and brought safer neighborhoods.

"We have a border that is marked. A border that is lit. A border that is under control for the first time in American history," says U.S. attorney Alan Bersin.

Arrests are up

Mexican government bashes the tougher measures

The Mexican government, on the other hand, has attacked the tougher measures, saying it's worried about their impact on Mexican citizens.

The policy means "migrants resort to more and more dangerous measures to enter the United States, such as contracting traffickers and crossing areas that are highly inhospitable," the Foreign Ministry said.

Battle moves on to El Centro

Claiming victory in San Diego, however, the U.S. government is not backing off. War is now being declared in El Centro, California.

"The smugglers are trying to relocate their operations there," Meissner explains. "They simply can't cross anymore in the San Diego area, so it's time to respond in El Centro and push back the smuggling traffic."

She said there would be 62 more Border Patrol agents at El Centro, 120 miles east of San Diego, boosting the force there to 262. In addition, the area will get 40 special INS agents, 20 immigration inspectors and 10 detention officers for up to 60 days. After that, the INS will assess the strategy.

Two years ago, agents arrested 36,000 illegals in the El Centro area. This fiscal year, agents nabbed 146,000 illegal immigrants, says Randy Clark with the U.S. Border Patrol.

Kubler quote

"It's a significant increase," he says.

Still, farmer John Kubler says that during the middle of the day, illegals can be seen running through his grass fields.

"We are probably one of the main thoroughfares not only for illegal people, but drugs as well," he says.

With more technology and troops on the way, the border patrol hopes to duplicate its San Diego success story in El Centro. But before the flow of illegals can be stopped, their bellies must be full.

CNN Correspondent Greg LaMotte contributed to this report.


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