It is a key facet of a Bush administration crackdown not only on the border — where National Guardtroops now work with Border Patrol agents — but in the interior, where immigration agents have raidedwork sites and are targeting fraudulent work documents."This program is sending the message we're not letting illegal border-crossers have a free ride,"Border Patrol assistant chief Ramon Rivera said. "We're hoping it goes nationwide."Reactions to the project range from strong support to serious doubts about clogging already overloadedfederal courts. More arrests mean more prosecutions, more court dates."The idea of doing in Laredo what they do in Del Rio is really terrifying for us," said Marjorie Meyers,who heads the Federal Public Defenders office in Houston, which oversees the Laredo area. "There isno way we can handle it."Rivera said after the operation began in the Del Rio sector, apprehensions dropped by 46 percent fromOctober 2006 to August, compared with the 2005-06 fiscal year. Agency intelligence indicated thathuman traffickers have shifted operations downriver to Laredo, he said.The "zero tolerance" effort ends voluntary return in Laredo, a historic shift in enforcement. For decades,illegal immigrants from Mexico detained on the border were allowed to return home — if they did nothave criminal records — without being prosecuted, often the same day they were apprehended.And last year, Border Patrol ended "catch-and-release," the practice of freeing non-Mexican illegalimmigrants after giving them a notice to appear before an immigration judge. Most immigrants neverkept their court dates, officials acknowledged.
Dockets will fill up
The Laredo sector takes in 171 miles of Rio Grande frontage, extending to the Oklahoma border andincluding San Antonio and Dallas.Details of the operation's coverage within the sector would be released today, officials said.U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, supports the operation but acknowledged it could add to strainedborder dockets."At the beginning, you'll see a spike in cases in the court but after awhile it will go down because it willbe a deterrent," Cuellar said. "There's a criminal (smuggling) network out there ... and they'll get themessage pretty quickly that if they come they're going to serve time."Cuellar said he has sponsored legislation to add three federal judges to South Texas, and hopes onewill be assigned to Laredo.Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, a retired FBI official, said the government has a duty to enforce the lawbut he's not certain it will work.Salinas instead favors an expanded guest worker program for immigrants."The underlying solution to illegal immigration is solid, comprehensive reform legislation now — thelonger we wait, the worse it gets," he said.Mexican officials, who have been invited to attend today's announcement at sector headquarters inLaredo, said they would wait to comment."'It's very important for us," said Javier Abud, the Mexican consul in Laredo. "It's a very sensitiveoperation for our Mexican nationals."