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With Most Patrol Agents at the Border, Illegal Immigrants Who Make It North Have Little to Fear

By Debra Dominguez
Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
Third in a series
    Find an apartment, get a job, attend school. Thousands of New Mexico's illegal immigrants lead normal lives with little chance of being deported. That's because Border Patrol manpower and money are focused on the border— a policy praised by some and condemned by others.
    On Sept. 25, 2003, hundreds of community leaders and immigrants— both legal and illegal— assembled for a rally at a Santa Fe park.
    The immigrants not only held bold signs announcing their arrival, their dreams and promoting their rights, they were even enthusiastically welcomed by Gov. Bill Richardson.
    Noticeably absent: the U.S. Border Patrol.
    One reason may be the number of agents stationed in the Albuquerque office.
    U.S. Border Patrol Albuquerque Agent-in-Charge Patrick Hernandez told a Border Patrol community forum in 2004 that the patrol's Albuquerque station has only four agents to cover 14 counties, including Santa Fe, Bernalillo and Torrance counties.
    And with more emphasis placed on U.S. borders than state interiors, the odds of an illegal immigrant getting caught once he or she has successfully cleared the border are slim, said T.J. Bonner, San Diego-based president of the National Border Patrol Council.
    "Once you've crossed the border, you're pretty much home free," Bonner said. "If you keep your nose clean and avoid run-ins with the law, you probably won't get deported.
    "You're probably more likely to get hit by lightning than get caught for being in this country illegally," said Bonner, who's been a Border Patrol agent for 27 years.
    Consider: Of the 104,399 illegal immigrants apprehended in the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico and parts of Texas, in fiscal 2004, the Albuquerque station accounted for only 3,502, according to the Border Patrol's Doug Mosier.
Limited enforcement
    Although state and local police officers will detain illegal immigrants and hold them for the Border Patrol if a crime has been committed, the agencies are limited in how much they can enforce federal law.
    In April 2005, Gov. Bill Richardson issued an executive order prohibiting state and local law officers from prying into immigration status if an individual is a crime victim, a witness or is suspected only of being here illegally.
    The order was issued so that illegal immigrants who are crime victims or witnesses will not be afraid to report the crime for fear of deportation.
    The executive order leaves room for law enforcement to assist federal authorities if called upon.
    The Border Patrol also limits itself in some ways. The agency has a policy against apprehending immigrants at schools, churches, funerals and other ceremonies unless the situation is an emergency or there is prior approval.
    Bonner said it's a mistake to emphasize border enforcement at the expense of Border Patrol presence elsewhere.
    "You can't tell me a uniformed border patrolman walking the city streets doesn't serve as a sort of deterrent for illegal immigrants," he said. "Illegal immigrants should be nervous when they walk the streets, but because they really don't see Border Patrol agents, they're not."
    Valentin, who has lived illegally in the United States for about a decade, agrees.
    "You just don't see as many Border Patrol agents here as you do in other border states," he said. "So, I really don't live in fear like I used to."
    Valentin was just 17 when he illegally entered the United States, having come up from Leon, Guanajuato, in central Mexico. He said he remembers a time shortly after that he had a run-in with the Border Patrol.
    "I was sitting outside (a garden-supply company in San Clemente, Calif), and la migra (U.S. Border Patrol) passed by," said Valentin, who paid a coyote to walk him through the Tijuana/San Diego border in 1995. "They just parked and stared at me.
    "My heart began to race, and I sat for a while wondering what I should do," he said. "If I ran, they would know and chase me. So I kept my cool. They finally left. I left to Los Angeles soon after."
    Today, Valentin, 27, works as a salesman for a store in Santa Fe.
A matter of security?
    Mosier, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, wouldn't say how many agents cover the Albuquerque area because it would "compromise the department's security or operations."
    Perhaps that's because an internal "White House Approved" form, which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit group Judicial Watch, limits what U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials can say on certain immigration issues.
    It states, among many other things, that comparisons of past immigration reform proposals and statistics on apprehension spikes are not to be discussed.
    Once past the border, migrants are typically apprehended through general surveillance of highways; transportation hubs such as airports, train and bus stations; and after being turned over to the department from other law enforcement agencies, according to Mosier.
    As to what the Albuquerque Border Patrol station agents do daily as part of their enforcement operations, Mosier once again wouldn't give specifics because it would "compromise department security."
The employment front
    Once in New Mexico, a solid majority of illegal workers hold steady jobs or find seasonal employment, according to New Mexico Department of Labor spokesman Carlos Castañeda.
    And, again, the chances of being deported are slim.
    Many immigrants say they apply for a job by using fake identification documents or by using an Individual Tax Identification Number from the Internal Revenue Service and a state-issued driver's license.
    Since New Mexico passed a law in 2003 making immigrants— regardless of immigration status— eligible to obtain driver's licenses, approximately 20,000 immigrants have received them.
    Immigrants like Valentin say this sends them a mixed message.
    Bonner of the National Border Patrol Council agrees and says employers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
    "We're not being fair to employers by expecting them to be the enforcer for the government," he said. "On one hand, the law says they're supposed to ask for certain documents before hiring an employee— not prove the documents are authentic."
    Enforcement of immigration laws in the workplace falls to the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
    Carl Rusnok, director of communications for ICE's central region, said his department may execute lawful search warrants— both administrative and criminal— on businesses that it suspects of employing illegal immigrants.
    ICE usually conducts paperwork audits on the business first, he said.
    ICE does not keep statistics on how many lawful search warrants the department has made, Rusnok said.
    He added ICE also does not keep statistics on how many New Mexico businesses it has prosecuted and how many false documents it has seized over any particular time period.
    In July 2004, however, an ICE operation in Albuquerque stood out when a federal affidavit surfaced stating several Asian and Central American workers at three Chinese restaurants were involved in conspiracy, inducing and harboring aliens. ICE searched nearly a dozen homes and businesses in Albuquerque in April of that year.
    The two corporations and four individuals who operated the restaurants pleaded guilty to charges last March.
    Nationally, the Bush administration's workplace enforcement of immigration laws has fallen sharply, according to the Government Accountability Office.
    The office recently raised concerns that the number of employers who received formal warnings about possible fines for violating immigration laws has dwindled significantly since President Clinton was in office.
    Under the Clinton administration in 1999, 417 employers received formal warnings as opposed to three in 2003 under Bush, Richard Stana of the Government Accountability Office told a House panel in June 2005.
    The White House's Web site, however, points to other figures to demonstrate strides it's made to control illegal immigration.
    Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has audited 3,640 businesses, examined 259,037 employee records, arrested 1,030 unauthorized workers, and participated in the criminal indictment of 774 individuals under the Bush administration's Operation Tarmac, according to the Web site.
    Immigration officials say this is partly due to more focus being placed on the border and on terrorism.
    Rusnok said ICE also:
  • Has a program targeting illegal immigrants working at sensitive facilities such as airports, military bases, nuclear and other power plants and oil refineries.
  • Routinely collaborates on immigration operations with other law enforcement agencies.
  • Has department teams that identify, locate, arrest and remove illegal immigrants who have fled from final orders of removal.