Surprise: Times Finds Tougher Border Security Actually Works

The Times surprised on Wednesday with a front-page article by James McKinley Jr. suggesting that tougher border security in the form of new barriers and more guards was actually reducing illegal immigrationalong the Mexican border ("Tougher Tactics Deter Migrants At U.S. Border").

"All along the border, there are signs that the measures the Border Patrol and other federal agencies have taken over the last year, from erecting new barriers to posting 6,000 National Guardsmen as armed sentinels, are beginning to slow the flow of illegal immigrants.

"The only available barometer of the decline is how many migrants are caught. In the last four months, the number has dropped 27 percent compared with the same period last year, the biggest drop since a crackdown immediately after 9/11. In two sections around Yuma and near Del Rio, Tex., the numbers have fallen by nearly two-thirds, Homeland Security officials say."

There's more:

"Border Patrol commanders say they see no explanation for the drop-off across the entire 2,000-mile border other than stiffer enforcement deterring migrants. The slackening flow, they argue, belies the conventional wisdom that it is impossible to stem illegal migration. Many veteran officers in the force are now beginning to believe it can be controlled with enough resources.

"The new measures range from simply putting more officers out on patrol to erecting stadium lights, secondary fences and barriers of thick steel poles to stop smugglers from racing across the desert in all-wheel-drive trucks. The Border Patrol has deployed hundreds of new guards to watch rivers, monitor surveillance cameras and guard fences."

McKinley revealed the "bizarre" bureaucracy that made the previous strategy of border security so ineffectual:

"The federal government has also begun punishing migrants with prison time from the first time they enter illegally in some areas. For instance, along the 210 miles of border covered by the Del Rio office of the Border Patrol, everyone caught crossing illegally is charged in federal court and, if convicted, sentenced to at least two weeks in prison.

"That is an enormous break with past practice, when most Mexican migrants were simply taken back to the border and let go. People from Central American countries were given a court date and released on their own recognizance. Few ever showed up....A year ago, a flood of immigrants from Central America was also overwhelming the border patrol in Del Rio and Eagle Pass, two small Texas towns on the Rio Grande. The migrants were taking advantage of a lack of detention space, which had led to the policy of giving them a hearing date and letting them remain in the country.

"The result was bizarre: Central Americans would cross the river in droves in broad daylight, run up to Border Patrol agents and line up to be arrested, knowing they would be released and could then continue on their journey. More than 200 a day were arrested in Eagle Pass alone.

"Agents at the processing center, never intended as a jail, were so busy feeding and fingerprinting migrants they had little time for patrolling, said Randy Clark, the agent in charge of Eagle Pass Border Patrol office."

Maybe McKinley can pass along the good news to the Times editorial board, whichjust thisSunday ran a long, hand-wringing editorial, "They Are America," whichclaimed the stepped-up border security was bothmean and ineffective.

"What little the last Congress did about immigration was focused on appeasing hard-line conservatives by appearing to seal the border. President Bush's new budget continues that approach, seeking 3,000 more Border Patrol officers and another $1 billion for a 700-mile fence, adding to the billions spent to militarize the border since the 1990s. That still isn't enough to build the fence and it hasn't controlled the illegal flow; you need more visas and better workplace enforcement to do that."

Or maybe not.