SAN DIEGO - The U.S. Border Patrol is moving to halt a revolving-door policy of sending migrants back to Mexico without any punishment.
The agency this month is overhauling its approach on migrants caught illegally crossing the 1,954-mile border that the United States shares with Mexico. Years of enormous growth at the federal agency in terms of staff and technology have helped drive down apprehensions of migrants to 40-year lows.
The number of agents since 2004 has more than doubled to 21,000. The Border Patrol has blanketed one-third of the border with fences and other physical barriers, and spent heavily on cameras, sensors and other gizmos. Major advances in fingerprinting technology have vastly improved intelligence on border-crossers. In the 2011 fiscal year, border agents made 327,577 apprehensions on the Mexican border, down 80 percent from more than 1.6 million in 2000. It was the Border Patrol's slowest year since 1971.
(Below, watch when CBS' "60 Minutes" visited the U.S.-Mexican border for a 2010 report on the high-tech project that is supposed to secure it.)
The Border Patrol now feels it has enough of a handle to begin imposing more serious consequences on almost everyone it catches, from areas including Texas' Rio Grande Valley to San Diego. The "Consequence Delivery System" a key part of the Border Patrol's new national strategy to be announced within weeks relies largely on tools that have been rolled out over the last decade on parts of the border and expanded. It divides border crossers into seven categories, ranging from first-time offenders to people with criminal records.
Punishments vary by region but there is a common thread: Simply turning people around after taking their fingerprints is the choice of last resort. Some, including children and the medically ill, will still get a free pass by being turned around at the nearest border crossing, but they will be few and far between.
"What we want to be able to do is make that the exception and not necessarily the norm," Fisher told The Associated Press.
Consequences can be severe for detained migrants and expensive to American taxpayers, including felony prosecution or being taken to an unfamiliar border city hundreds of miles away to be sent back to Mexico. One tool used during summers in Arizona involves flying migrants to Mexico City, where they get one-way bus tickets to their hometowns. Another releases them to Mexican authorities for prosecution south of the border. One puts them on buses to return to Mexico in another border city that may be hundreds of miles away.
In the past, migrants caught in Douglas, Ariz., were given a bologna sandwich and orange juice before being taken back to Mexico at the same location on the same afternoon, Fisher said. Now, they may spend the night at an immigration detention facility near Phoenix and eventually return to Mexico through Del Rio, Texas, more than 800 miles away.
Those migrants are effectively cut off from the smugglers who helped them cross the border, whose typical fees have skyrocketed to between $3,200 and $3,500 and are increasingly demanding payment upfront instead of after crossing, Fisher said. At minimum, they will have to wait longer to try again as they raise money to pay another smuggler.
"What used to be hours and days is now being translated into days and weeks," said Fisher.
The new strategy was first introduced a year ago in the office at Tucson, Ariz., the patrol's busiest corridor for illegal crossings. Field supervisors ranked consequences on a scale from 1 to 5 using 15 different yardsticks, including the length of time since the person was last caught and per-hour cost for processing.
The longstanding practice of turning migrants straight around without any punishment, known as "voluntary returns," ranked least expensive and least effective.
Agents got color-coded, wallet-sized cards also made into posters at Border Patrol stations that tells them what to do with each category of offender. For first-time violators, prosecution is a good choice, with one-way flights to Mexico City also scoring high. For known smugglers, prosecution in Mexico is the top pick.
The Border Patrol has introduced many new tools in recent years without much consideration to whether a first-time violator merited different treatment than a repeat crosser.
"There really wasn't much thought other than, 'Hey, the bus is outside, let's put the people we just finished processing on the bus and therefore wherever that bus is going, that's where they go,'" Fisher said.
Now, a first-time offender faces different treatment than one caught two or three times. A fourth-time violator faces other consequences.