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On U.S.-Mexican border, new deterrent is jail time

Along a 12-mile stretch, border patrol agents say a zero-tolerance plan has resulted in a 78 percent decrease in arrests.

Rich Clabaugh

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For decades, most Mexicans caught trudging across the desolate and dusty hills of Sunland Park, N.M., have been fingerprinted and promptly sent back over the border.

But in an effort to slow the revolving door of job-seeking immigrants willing to test high-tech sensors, bike patrols, and fences that guard the American boundary here, border patrol agents have initiated a tough zero-tolerance policy along this 12-mile zone that stretches west from El Paso, Texas.

Anyone caught crossing illegally, agents say, will be arrested and prosecuted, whether it's their first or 50th try. If they attempt to come back within five years, they face a felony charge.

For critics, the policy, which comes amid a tougher culture of border enforcement, will push immigrants into the hands of smugglers and will add to already crowded US jails and burden its courts. For supporters, however, it's a significant attempt to stop a human tide that, despite ebbs, continues largely unabated.

"Despite all this, they continue to come in," says US border patrol agent Ramiro Cordero, pointing to a mix of barriers and cameras. "This solution is zero tolerance.... It is obviously going to stop them." US border patrol officials says this program aimed at deterrence is already working.

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