An immigration reform bill isn’t even drafted, but undocumented immigrants are already thinking it’s a done deal.

They’re thinking if they make it across the border, they’ll get amnesty.

U.S. Border Patrol said it’s at least part of the reason for the recent spike in arrests in South Texas.

At the Federal court in McAllen Texas, a city about eight miles from the Mexico border, judges see hundreds of undocumented immigrants each week. They’re brought in groups of 40 at a time, en masse hearings that take place two to three times a day.

“Our agents are getting swamped with work at this moment, if you cut their salary and their hours how do they expect us to properly secure the border?”

- Paul Perez, vice-president of the border agents’ union

Wearing earphones to hear the court reporter’s translation, the immigrants unanimously respond “Sí señor” or “No señor” as the judge asked them their plea.

But this is not what traditionally takes place.

Going before a judge and facing not only deportation but also jail time is the one thing that Mexican immigrants usually try to avoid, so they usually opt for “voluntary departure,” a form they sign so they can be quickly returned to Mexico without having to wait for a hearing.

But starting last month, border agents began noticing an unexpected trend — groups of immigrants crossed the border illegally but instead of trying to avoid agents, they sought them out to turn themselves in.

Why the sudden change?

Because word has spread south of the border that there’s a good chance they could get amnesty as part of a major overhaul to the U.S. immigration system now being debated in Congress.

Agents were taken aback by immigrants turning themselves in, eventually realizing that it amounted to nothing more than wishful thinking, said Paul Perez, vice-president of the border agents’ union, the National Border Patrol Council.

The agency’s official response is that the sudden spike in arrests is anecdotal and not a trend that can be corroborated. National spokesman Bill Brooks wouldn’t elaborate or talk about recent increases in apprehensions despite published reports in South Texas, including a local agency spokesman discussing the issue.

Perez said that agents are seeing about a 50 percent increase in apprehensions when compared to the same period last year — a combination of the amnesty rumor, as well as a steady flow of Central Americans still choosing South Texas as their top spot to illegally cross the border.

“We need the support of our nation’s leaders to keep their eye on border security and not simply look at it as another item on the agenda,” Perez said. “Our agents are getting swamped with work at this moment, if you cut their salary and their hours, how do they expect us to properly secure the border?”

The increase in apprehensions is tied to a shift in migration pattern that follows the increase in border enforcement which has focused on the Western side of the border, said John Paul Torres, a spokesman for the South Texas immigrant advocacy group, La Union Del Pueblo Unido.

The perceived focus on the western side of the border has driven immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America to look at the South Texas border as a way in.

While those who seek to settle in South Texas do place themselves in danger, immigrants who try to get to larger metropolitan areas place themselves in serious danger because most rely on the help of human smugglers.  

Those seeking to get to northern cities must get through not just the southern border but also U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints, which smugglers circumvent by taking immigrants across long treks in the brush, resulting in dozens of immigrant deaths.

For those turning themselves in to border agents, it truly seems to be false hope — since many of them likely already have a prior deportation record, they would be automatically disqualified from getting amnesty, Torres said.

Ildefonso Ortiz is a freelance writer based in McAllen, Texas.

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