Loophole to America - Migrants exploiting border law for non-Mexicans

By Jerry Krammer, San Diego Union-Tribune, June 4, 2005

McALLEN, Texas In the silvery-blue light of dusk, 20 Brazilians glided across the Rio Grande in rubber rafts propelled by Mexican smugglers who leaned forward and breast-stroked through the gentle current.

Illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico often gather at the bus station in Harlingen, Texas, call friends and relatives and catch a bus out of town.

Once on the U.S. side, the Brazilians scrambled ashore and started looking for the Border Patrol. Their quick and well-rehearsed surrender was part of a growing trend that is demoralizing the Border Patrol and beckoning a rising number of illegal immigrants from countries beyond Mexico.

"We used to chase them; now they're chasing us," Border Patrol Agent Gus Balderas said as he frisked the Brazilians and collected their passports late last month.

What happened next explains the odd reversal.

The group was detained overnight and given a court summons that allowed them to stay in the United States pending an immigration hearing. Then a Border Patrol agent drove them to the McAllen bus station, where they continued their journey into America.

The formal term for the court summons is a "notice to appear." Border Patrol agents have another name for it. They call it a "notice to disappear."

Of the 8,908 notices to appear that the immigration court in nearby Harlingen issued last year to non-Mexicans, 8,767 failed to show up for their hearings, according to statistics compiled by the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review. That is a no-show rate of 98 percent.

The problem is that U.S. immigration authorities are short on detention space. They can send Mexicans back across the border within hours. But international law prohibits them from sending non-Mexicans to Mexico. Instead, they must arrange travel documents and flights directly to the immigrant's country of origin. The process, which the U.S. government pays for, takes weeks or even months....

It is a world turned upside down for the Border Patrol, especially here in South Texas. Back in 1985, things were so different that a woman was convicted on charges that she drove illegal immigrants from El Salvador around the Border Patrol and to the same McAllen bus station....

As word of this border loophole filters back to Central and South America, the volume of people coming to exploit it is likely to grow, according to Border Patrol agents.

Apprehension statistics bolster their assertion. Arrests of non-Mexicans along the U.S.-Mexico border totaled 14,935 in 1995, 28,598 in 2000 and 65,814 last year. In the first eight months of this federal fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, more than 85,000 have been apprehended. Nearly all are no-shows at their court hearings, but comprehensive federal figures are not available....

Many Border Patrol agents express frustration over the dilemma. They also worry that the high volume of non-Mexicans is taking up much of their time and might be making it easier for potential terrorists to slip past. Some said they spend much of their 10-hour shift processing non-Mexicans....

Another agent expressed astonishment at the cheekiness of some of the migrants.

"They come up to you and say, 'I want my permiso,' " Agent Larry Alvarez said. "They want us to hurry up and get them out of here."...

In particular, the growth in the number of Brazilians taking advantage of the loophole has been spectacular, largely because of that country's poor economic conditions. In 1995, the Border Patrol detained 260 Brazilians along the Mexican border. Five years later, the number had grown to 1,241. But over the past eight months, it has soared to some 22,000.

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