Paseo Del Norte, Part IV

By Jessica M. Vaughan on March 25, 2009

Already published from this series:
Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Border Crossing Chaos

Since sneaking over the physical border has become so difficult, those who seek illegitimate entry, whether motivated by crime or job opportunities, are more likely to try the official ports of entry. The main document Mexicans use to cross from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso is the border crossing card (BCC). The State Department has issued more than nine million BCCs in the last ten years. They account for nearly 100 million entries to the United States each year, easily dwarfing every other entry program. They supply customers for many El Paso merchants, but they also facilitate illegal employment and the smuggling of people and who knows what else across the border. Nothing in the Obama administration’s brand-new Southwest Border Security Initiative addresses this vulnerability.

The BCC was originally developed to provide a secure travel document to Mexicans so that they could more easily and lawfully go to the U.S. border region for short shopping trips and family visits. It was sold as a way to stimulate the retail economy on the U.S. side and offer Mexicans, many of whom lacked passports and would not otherwise qualify for a visitor visa, the opportunity to make a quick trip without compromising border security. Originally, card holders were allowed to stay up to 72 hours and could travel no further than 25 miles from the border (except in Arizona, where they could go as far as Tucson). The Bush administration increased the permitted duration of stay to 30 days (that’s a pretty long shopping trip or visit from someone who supposedly lives just over the river).

Over the years the security features of the cards have been improved; since 2002, all cards are biometric and machine readable. But the policies for determining who gets the cards and how they will be monitored reflect neither the illegal immigration and employment problem nor the deteriorating security situation in Mexico. From recent immigration history we know that when the going has gotten tough, large numbers of Colombians, Venezuelans, Argentines, and Trinidadians, for example, have gotten going to the United States on their 10-year visitor visas issued in more prosperous times. There is no reason to think the Mexicans will be any different; in fact, according to recent news reports, many have already relocated from Juarez to El Paso, including the family of the mayor of Juarez.

With respect to BCCs, both DHS and State are stuck in a travel-and commerce-promotion mentality. U.S. consular officers in the border areas of Mexico are instructed to consider the special relationship of the border cities, and that an international visit is less of an event than it would be in other places, which translates into many, many issuances. The overall approval rate for Mexicans applying for visitor visas was 89 percent, up from 67 percent as recently as 2007. A 1994 study found that nearly half the residents of Juarez had been issued a BCC. If a larger number of them suddenly decided they would be better off moving north, our immigration system is ill-equipped to stop them. Few controls exist to prevent someone from using the card to cross to work every day, from using it once to relocate permanently to the U.S. side, or from allowing others to use it for any imaginable purpose.

It’s easy to see how residents of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez have become conditioned to think of the border as more of an inconvenience than an international boundary. The border region’s economic development plan is based on interdependence. A substantial share of the Juarez economy, and to a lesser extent El Paso’s, is connected to the maquiladora industry. Maquiladoras are plants in Mexico that assemble goods or components using imported raw materials and supplies for re-export, usually to the United States. They sprouted in the border regions in the 1980s to attract U.S. manufacturers who wanted to take advantage of Mexico’s relatively low labor costs in order to better compete with Asian companies.

Workers flock to these plants from all over Mexico. They offer good, steady wages and working conditions and make possible a much higher quality of life for Mexicans lacking education and skills than would be available in the country’s rural heartland. For instance, maquiladora workers can qualify for a government-backed mortgage after a certain period of employment.

The maquiladoras are also a stepping stone in what has become an established process for permanent migration to the United States. It is widely understood that workers who have been employed at a Juarez-area maquiladora for three years will usually be approved for a border crossing card, especially if they have a mortgage and other indicators of having become settled in the area. After obtaining the BCC, a noticeable number of these workers will travel to the United States, find employment, and settle permanently, eventually acquiring a spouse and U.S.-born children. This pattern is reported by human resources managers at the maquiladoras and also consular officers who eventually encounter the former maquila workers as green card applicants.

Economic conditions could drive many others to use their BCC to leave Mexico. According to a local trade publication, a few plants are hiring, but those tied to U.S. auto and electronics manufacturing are laying off workers. Retail sales have plummeted in Ciudad Juarez, as the violence has scared away visitors and many businesses have closed to escape extortion. People who once felt economically secure working in Juarez may change their minds; since BCCs are good for ten years, they have plenty of time to decide and make plans.

Some do get caught. According to CBP reports, the inspectors in El Paso apprehend an average of 35 “intending immigrants” each week. More are caught by the Border Patrol at inland checkpoints located outside the 25-mile zone where BCC visitors are supposed to stay.

A bigger problem for the CBP inspectors is the impostor – the person who is using a genuine BCC that was issued to someone else. Prospective migrants who are rejected at the consulate, or don’t even bother trying, can visit one of the many "assesoria migratorias" for assistance. Some of these businesses appear to offer legitimate services to aid applicants in completing the paperwork for a U.S. visa. But the “full service” assesorias work directly with smuggling organizations to help people enter illegally. According to several U.S. government sources, for a fee of $50-500, the assesoria staffers will flip through their loose-leaf binder collections of genuine BCCs (lost, stolen or purchased) and attempt to match each customer to a card with a resembling photo. The assesorias have a network of little old ladies who are regular crossers and are often seen hawking cheap kitchen goods, statues, or clothing in the bridge area. These ladies will follow the customer over the bridge and through the port. If the customer makes it through, they will approach him on the U.S. side to retrieve the BCC, to be recycled for another day.

CBP officers in El Paso report that they are catching about 46 imposters a week in early 2009, mostly using BCCs. A 2006 Reuters article reported that 8,745 BCCs were reported lost or stolen that year in Juarez alone, and another 3,095 in Tijuana. If those statistics are still accurate, then it appears that only a small share of the impostors are being detected. The State Department has tried to make it more difficult for impostors by flagging the replacement cards of people who report them lost or stolen, but it is unclear how this information is used by other agencies. CBP inspectors do not fully or routinely utilize the smart features of the cards to verify the identity of the bearer. While the cards are usually swiped to check for criminal history and past entries, the traveler’s identity is verified with biometrics only if the inspector becomes suspicious or if the traveler asks for permission to go beyond the border region.

Neither the State Department nor DHS has a grasp on just how much BCC abuse occurs, although it’s obviously a problem. Because DHS has yet to implement the land border exit-recording system required by law, it is difficult to assess how the cards are used. Statisticians at DHS have reported that Mexicans make up the largest share of the visa overstay population, which is believed to number between three and four million. One academic study based on immigrant surveys suggested that about one-fifth of the seven million Mexican illegal aliens entered on a temporary visa (see the New Immigrant Survey results). If that’s true, then more than one million illegal immigrants could have settled illegally on BCCs, since about 80% of the non-immigrant visas issued to Mexicans are BCCs.

Besides the illegal settlers, thousands of people in Juarez use the cards every day to cross to El Paso to work illegally, which is prohibited by the terms of the visa (see Vaughan's report on US-VISIT). Arizona has helped address this problem by requiring all employers to use E-Verify. Texas and the other border states should do the same; not only would it help reduce unauthorized travel through the ports of entry, it would ensure that jobs in these communities go to legal residents.

Despite all these clues, the State Department continues to churn out the cards. According to a recent GAO report, the department expects to renew several million BCCs in the next few years, with demand peaking at three million in 2011. Officials have decided that most of these individuals need not be re-interviewed, although that would be one way to determine if the card should be renewed. Instead, one border post ran a sample of BCC-holders through the standard immigration databases to check for significant criminal and immigration violations. The screening turned up hits on fewer than one percent of the card holders. It sounds like a small number, but it represents thousands of ineligible and possibly dangerous cardholders in just that one sample (these were not renewed!). Electronic screening is a necessary precaution, but it cannot possibly determine if a card has been loaned out or if the card-holder is living or working in the United States, and thus is not sufficient to preserve the integrity of the visa program.

It’s not likely that the State Department will take steps to tighten up the BCC program; instead, they are focused on how to manage the huge volume of renewal applicants (created by past issuance decisions, good and bad). For its part, DHS appears to be putting its effort into fighting the cartels by beefing up investigative and rapid response capacity and interrupting the southbound flow of cash and weapons. This is an ideal opportunity to begin testing and creating the infrastructure for a permanent southbound exit inspection/tracking system for documents too, that can eventually enable these agencies to monitor and control the use of BCCs.