DEL RIO, Texas — Many in Congress are counting on border walls to discourage illegal immigration and dope smuggling from Mexico. Here in Del Rio, Texas, authorities are using prison walls instead.
The ever-expanding Val Verde County jail is filled with would-be yardmen and maids, immigrants awaiting deportation. They've been caught in a law enforcement dragnet known as "Operation Streamline,'' a zero tolerance program that began here and has since spread both east and west along the Mexican border.
Critics of the lock-'em-up approach question the skyrocketing costs, complain of poor conditions inside the detention facilities, and predict that ultimately the efforts won't stop immigrants and drugs from making their way north.
But supporters say the approach is reducing crime and discouraging immigrants from trying to cross into the United States. The number of illegal immigrants caught in the Border Patrol's Del Rio Sector is at its lowest level since the early 1970s.
"Enforcement works,'' said Val Verde County Sheriff D'Wayne Jernigan. "We're definitely seeing a reduction in crime throughout the border area and a reduction in the number of aliens running loose in our community.''
Though federal authorities are planning a small section of border fencing near the international bridge linking Del Rio and Ciudad Acuna, Jernigan, who prefers boots on the ground over physical barriers, says the illegal traffic has slowed without a wall.
In all of 2007, 22,920 people were apprehended in the Del Rio sector, many of whom passed through the Val Verde jail. In 1974, the oldest year-end figures available, almost twice that many, or 44,806, were caught. They don't count how many get through, but officials believe fewer captures mean fewer illegal crossings.
As recently as 2000, 157,178 were caught in the sector. Then, in late 2005, after an outcry from the sheriff and other local officials, the Border Patrol inaugurated Operation Streamline in the Del Rio Sector. It was later expanded to Yuma, Ariz., and, most recently, Laredo, Texas.
The new approach is aimed at ending the controversial "catch and release'' practice. For years, thousands of undocumented foreigners apprehended along the border were released for lack of jail space and given a notice to appear in court. Most simply vanished into the underground economy.
Now the buzz phrase is "catch and detain,'' meaning virtually everybody who gets caught is sent to federal court or returned home immediately.
The result has been a logistical and financial burden for the U.S. Department of Justice, which must add attorneys and staff to bring charges against those being held. U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey recently called the burden "staggering.''
Along with it has come an almost insatiable demand for jail space.
Eight years ago, for example, the Val Verde Correctional Facility had only 180 beds. This year, after completing its second 600-bed expansion, the maximum security jail has room for 1,425 prisoners, an increase of almost 800 percent.
While the state prisoner population has remained flat at about 70 to 80 a day on average, the numbers serving time for immigration and drug offenses have skyrocketed, officials say.
"If it wasn't for federal prisoners we wouldn't need any of this. It just wouldn't be necessary,'' Jernigan said during a recent tour of the massive facility he oversees in Del Rio. "This is a federal court city and there's a need to house federal prisoners here."
Two brand new prisons specializing in federal detainees are also rising up along the Texas-Mexico border south of here — a 654-bed unit being erected in Eagle Pass and a 1,500-bed jail nearing completion in Laredo.
Like the Val Verde lock-up, the privately-run facilities belong to the Geo Group, Inc., formerly known as Wackenhut, which last year experienced its strongest financial performance ever, the company said.
Even the largest jail for illegal immigrants, the Willacy County Detention Center, was too small to accommodate federal demands. Located in Raymondville, Texas — nicknamed "prisonville" — it's expanding capacity from 2,000 to 3,000 beds this year, officials say.
The detention boom hasn't been done on the cheap.
According to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it costs $88 a day to house a prisoner in privately run jail facilities — and nearly $120 a day at ICE processing centers.
Nationwide, the average number of daily prisoners detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has increased 44 percent since 2001, figures show. Meanwhile, ICE's budget for Detention and Removal Operations has more than doubled in the last four years, rising from $959 million in fiscal year 2004 to $2.4 billion in 2008, according to agency data.
Fixing the porous southern border became an urgent national priority after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The number of Border Patrol agents on duty, for example, will have doubled by the time President Bush leaves office, to 18,000, according to federal officials.
But Bush's proposed immigration overhaul — giving guest worker permits to certain Mexican laborers — collapsed in Congress last year. That paved the way for workplace raids, an increase in fines for people caught hiring illegals, an expansion of electronic worker verification programs, and a series of anti-immigrant measures enacted by state legislatures.
Critics say the get-tough policies have been extraordinarily costly, both in financial and human terms. The U.S. already locks up far more people than any other country, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.
"Throwing money at the problem and then claiming that temporary gains are total victories is futile,'' said Judy Greene, an analyst at Justice Strategies, a non-profit group that studies incarceration alternatives,. "I think Americans will come to see this over time, just like they did with the drug war, which didn't have the advertised effect.''
Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which provides legal assistance to many undocumented workers, said the crackdown is doomed to fail because it doesn't address the root causes of illegal immigration. He blamed a massive "economic dislocation" in Mexico, where he said free trade policies have devastated rural agriculture and sent its field hands fleeing.
"I think we could lean on Mexico and tell them there's no financial aid, reciprocity, any of that stuff, unless Mexico makes progress toward democratizing its own economy,'' Harrington said. "Without that, we're going to continue what we're doing now, and that's investing an endless amount of money into a bandaid that's just not going to hold.''
Ricardo Ahuja, the Mexican consul in Del Rio, said migrants already are breaking through the physical and legal barriers.
"They're finding other routes,'' Ahuja said. "It's a question of supply and demand. If there weren't jobs waiting for them in the U.S., they wouldn't cross.''
But supporters of the crackdown say the data proves it's working and that the alternative is a suspension of the rule of law on the border. While Del Rio Sector apprehensions dropped 67 percent approximately two years after Operation Streamline was introduced there, they've gone down just 14 percent in the heavily-crossed Tucson area, figures show. U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, is now pushing Congress to expand the zero tolerance polices border wide.
"This has an unbelievable deterrent effect,'' Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a recent press conference. "When people who cross the border illegally are brought to face the reality that they were committing a crime, even if it's just a misdemeanor, that has a huge impact on their willingness to try again.''