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Human Fence Better Than Steel

Operation Hold the Line cuts illegal crossings on US-Mexico border by ten-fold

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JUST swimming the 50-foot-wide Rio Grande is not enough to enter the United States illegally.

At the de Vargas border sector here, an illegal also has to hike up a steep concrete embankment, scale a 10-foot fence, negotiate a swiftly flowing canal, climb another fence, and then dash across a busy border highway.

Yet thousands used to do it daily - even Mexican maids - a testament to how badly they wanted to come. Lately, however, the numbers have dropped dramatically.

Where physical barriers have failed to stem the crossings, a human curtain apparently has.

Operation Hold the Line, the 18-month-old effort aimed at reducing illegal entries by putting more agents on the border, has cut down on the number of crossings from 10,000 a month to about 1,000, according to Silvestre Reyes, chief Border Patrol agent for the El Paso, Texas, sector of the US-Mexico border.

Now even more manpower is being thrown at the problem. US Attorney General Janet Reno last week unveiled plans to further expand patrols at various points along the US-Mexican border. San Diego will get 200 new agents. El Paso will get 65 of the 300 new agents stationed in Texas.

Mr. Reyes had wanted 200 new patrols alone. But Ms. Reno said the success of Hold the Line could lead to a surge in illegal crossings elsewhere - which has been one of the criticisms of the initiative - and thus the new agents are being spread along the border.

Ms. Reno also promised to give the border patrol high-tech equipment worth $258 million over a five-year period. For one thing, the equipment will cut by more than 80 percent the time spent on some paperwork. A fingerprint-identification system will allow agents to determine if an illegal immigrant was apprehended previously while trying to enter the US at a different point.

The latest announcement by Reno gives the Clinton administration added visibility on an issue of rising concern to many voters. The frustration with illegal immigration was dramatized by passage of California's controversial Proposition 187, the voter initiative that cuts services to illegal immigrants.

Republicans, newly in control of Congress, have promised to tighten immigration laws, though immigrant-rights groups see the more conservative trend on such issues - including the crackdowns along the border - as xenophobic.

The tougher policing also comes at a time when more illegals could soon be coming. Some analysts warn that Mexico's economic problems, principally the 40 percent plunge in the value of the peso, may lead to another surge in border crossings.


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