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Border Arrests Increase As Peso Spurs an Exodus

MEXICO'S worsening economic crisis is sending a surge of illegal immigrants north into the United States. It will likely put more pressure on Washington to try to raise the drawbridge along the US-Mexican border.

The US House of Representatives is scheduled to hold one of a series of hearings on border security today. Likely to be addressed: Whether to station even more Border Patrol agents along the nation's southern flank.

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``Congress is obviously very concerned,'' says Cassie Boothe, a Border Patrol spokeswoman in Washington. ``The policy is to stop the flow [and] control the border.''

Arrests of illegals entering the US - one gauge of the level of illegal immigration - are accelerating. In February, Border Patrol agents from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, apprehended 118,000 illegal immigrants - a 38 percent increase over the same month a year ago. That followed a 10 percent jump in January.

Arrests had been on the decline all along the border in the last three months of 1994. Then, late in December, the peso began a freefall that has yet to end. Economists quickly predicted that inflation-eroded Mexican wages, or jobs lost outright, would drive Mexicans across the US border in search of work.

The influx will likely inflame the debate over what impact illegal immigrants have on state and federal treasuries. A move is under way in Florida to put an initiative on the ballot similar to California's Proposition 187, which bars illegal immigrants from receiving certain benefits. Similar measures are being debated in Congress. To help curb the number of entries, President Clinton's budget proposal for next year would boost the ranks of Border Patrol agents from 4,400 now to 5,600. That and other initiatives add up to $1 billion more for curbing illegal immigration.

Though Congress faces a huge budget-cutting task, the Border Patrol is not likely to be one of the areas trimmed. Republicans in Congress agree with the President that immigration control deserves more funding, says an aide to Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration.

Rob Daniels, a Border Patrol spokesman in the Tucson, Ariz., sector, says agents are snaring a greater percentage of illegal immigrants. But they are coming in greater numbers than before, and thus more are getting away, he adds.

Since October, Tucson has been conducting Operation Safeguard. It mimics the tactics of Operation Hold-The-Line in El Paso and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, in which numerous agents are placed in highly visible spots at the busiest border-crossings.

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Operation Safeguard will be bolstered by 100 agents between April and September, as well as 58 vehicles, 100 portable radios, 3 night vision scopes, and 60 more sensors, the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced this week. In addition, two miles of fence will be built at the Nogales crossing, where 90 percent of the sector's illegal entries occur. And the Border Patrol is placing new leaders over the operation.

Tucson is one of nine sectors adjoining Mexico. Seven saw a rise in arrests last month, up from five in January.

In the Del Rio sector in Texas, the Border Patrol has 180 fewer agents than in 1987, yet arrests rose 42 percent in February, says supervisory intelligence agent Aaron Billings.

``Because we don't have any additional manpower, common sense tells you that we're losing more [illegal immigrants],'' says Mr. Billings. The Justice Department plans to reinforce the sector with 100 new agents by August.

In the El Paso sector in west Texas and New Mexico, 200 agents in three shifts guard a 20-mile segment of border between the cities of El Paso and Juarez. Chief Patrol Agent Silvestre Reyes figures that 800 to 1,000 people a day appear poised to attempt illegal entry. Half are dissuaded by the presence of his agents. Of those who do enter, half are caught. He says his sector's 25-percent rise in arrests since December has three causes: the peso devaluation, successful end-runs by immigrant smugglers around the 20-mile segment, and the normal post-holiday return of undocumented workers. ``Short of an all-out crisis in Mexico,'' Mr. Reyes says, ``we have the capability of moving more resources to the line.''

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