Lawmakers eye Rio Grande Valley as possible zero-tolerance zone for border crossers
09:49 PM CDT on Friday, October 26, 2007
The Associated Press

LAREDO – The Rio Grande Valley could be the next place border authorities target for a policy that arrests and prosecutes all illegal immigrants caught crossing, a congressman said Friday.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said he and other congressional leaders have already begun talking to authorities about the possibility of expanding the zero-tolerance policy downriver from Laredo.

Laredo will become the third U.S. border zone to begin enforcing the decades-old federal crime of illegal entry when it begins implementing the program next week. The program, which results in jail sentences of two weeks to six months for first-time convictions, began in Del Rio in 2005 and was expanded to western Arizona last year.

"This whole concept is very simple. All we're doing is implementing the law," Mr. Cuellar said at a news conference formally announcing the Laredo expansion.

Enforcement begins in Laredo next week, and Mr. Cuellar said he and others have already begun talking to authorities in the Rio Grande Valley about expanding soon, though he couldn't say how long it might take to get the program started there.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said enforcement of the illegal-entry law represents a sea change in the way that illegal immigration is handled in the U.S. Before zero-tolerance zones, Mexican immigrants were most often voluntarily returned to Mexico, while those from other countries were given court dates they often skipped.

"We will not rest until zero tolerance is the policy from San Diego to Brownsville," he said.

Mr. Cuellar acknowledged, however, there will be an economic penalty to beefed-up enforcement without other changes that allow guest workers for jobs in agriculture and other industries where illegal workers are most common.

"We need to educate a lot of people that the enforcement does affect the economy," he said, adding that he hoped increased enforcement would encourage other immigration changes.

Mr. Cuellar said it might also convince supporters of a border fence, which has been heavily opposed in border communities, that the barrier is no longer necessary.

Border Patrol spokesman Ramon Rivera said this week that future expansion of the policy will be based on where border officials believe immigrant traffic is moving in response to new crackdowns.

"We're talking national," he said. "It sends a strong message that we're not letting illegal border crossers have a free ride."

Officials also noted that the implementation of zero-tolerance policies can strain the federal court system, adding thousands of additional cases to dockets in relatively small communities.

A similar program in eastern New Mexico that attempted to detain all illegal immigrants using the immigration court system – which is separate from the U.S. District Court – ended after just three months last year. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in El Paso got too crowded to continue housing so many immigrants, said El Paso Border Patrol spokesman Doug Moiser.

Del Rio and Yuma sector spokesmen say the zero-tolerance policy has cut illegal immigrant apprehensions, seen as an indicator of the number of crossings:

Del Rio: Down 46 percent since the policy was adopted in late 2005.

Yuma: Down nearly 70 percent since late last year. The policy shares credit with increased National Guard patrols and new sections of border fence.