In South Texas, Some Blame Senate For Rush Across the Border

More immigrant crossings in south Texas, leads experts to ask if Senate is to blame.

(Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Amnesty opponents say the Senate bill is partly to blame for a recent increase in illegal border crossings.

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If you ask almost anyone in south Texas whether the immigration debate in Washington is having an effect on their daily life, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone to tell you 'no.'

In the last few years, the number of immigrants who are being caught crossing into the country illegally has spiked in Texas.

[READ: Senate Passes Sweeping Immigration Reform]

In the Rio Grande sector, the number of apprehensions from January to May 2012 was 60,585. By May of this year, U.S. Border Patrol has apprehended 93,922 immigrants.

From ranchers to police, most will say the mere discussion of a "path to citizenship" for the country's 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally has sparked a rapid influx of immigrants hoping to cross the border before the U.S. cracks down.

"It opens the flood gates, but you have now that people feel like there is a timeline, they have something to lose. We see more pursuits, more agent assaults more things that are going to cause and concern the safety of our units," says Chris Cabrera, a U.S. Border Patrol officer and the vice-president of the National Border Patrol Council.

Citizens who have longed work to curb illegal immigration say they are seeing more action on the ground that they've seen in years.

"We are attracting even more people to come illegally," says Jean Swan, a volunteer with a citizen patrol group Texas Border Volunteers. "They are talking about a 'pathway to citizenship,' so now people are flooding in for that."

[RELATED: In South Texas, Ranchers Increasingly Fearful of Immigration]

The promise of legal citizenship is providing more incentive for immigrants to come to the U.S. even as the journey gets exceedingly more difficult, dangerous, and expensive.

"None of these people who might cross now would be beneficiaries of what is being debated. There is a terrible irony to it all," says Doris Meissner, a senior fellow and Director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.

While the Senate bill specifically outlines immigrants' need to be in the U.S. before 2011 to be eligible for the legalization process, experts say the details aren't as well-advertised as the outcome of legalization itself.

"Whenever there is the hope of the program such as the one in the Senate, information gets out, misinformation gets out and people respond," says Audrey Singer, a senior immigration fellow at the Brookings Institution. "People hear what they want to hear. They may like the idea. And the details? They will worry about them later."

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As the Mexican economy improves, Nestor Rodriguez, an immigration expert at the University of Texas—Austin, says immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador are increasingly crossing the border in south Texas. Many of them, Rodriguez says, live in such object poverty that they would likely be taking the risk regardless of immigration policy discussions in Washington, but Rodriguez says that news of "amnesty" does travel fast and isn't always accurate.

"When the news gets out that amnesty is being considered, those ideas float all the way into Central America," Rodriguez says. "There are many people well-connected to the news in the U.S., but there are others, especially those who were already thinking of coming that it helps to increase their motivation."

However, the reason for an immigration uptick goes beyond a congressional debate.

For one, the border has gotten tighter in areas like Arizona and California, which used to be ground zero for illegal immigration. The tightening at those precincts has pushed traffic further East. Also, increasing violence and decreasing economic opportunity in Central America also has led many to run the risk of immigrating to the U.S.

[MORE: House Begins Immigration Battle]

"The notion that somehow the recent numbers are up because of the Washington debate is far too simplistic, but I don't think any of us could entirely discount it," Meissner says. "From what we know about Central Americans, it is a combination of reasons largely driven by not only lack of opportunity, but increasing violence and increasing aggressiveness by gangs."