The tents were empty, the applications lay blank and all was quiet on the Texas border Friday, but immigration authorities warned that thousands of Central Americans were "lying low" and hoping for a lapse in tighter federal restrictions.
"I don't think they will stop coming," said Juan Bautista Sanchez-Sanchez, a Nicaraguan who was detained after his application for asylum was denied. He said he left home after being arrested and beaten for marching against Nicaragua's Sandinista government."They will be coming not only for economic reasons, but for political reasons and I think they will come if I tell them that even if they get put in jail here, they will not get beaten up," he said.
But for now, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's tough new asylum policy has achieved its goal: a sharply reduced flow of Central Americans across the Texas border. Patrol officers all along the border said the policy has not yet resulted in an increase in illegal immigration, despite rumors that immigrants were shifting their point of entry westward to Laredo and El Paso.
"We're keeping an eye on the situation," said Jaime Arras of the U.S. Border Patrol Office in El Paso.
Border Patrol officers in Laredo also said they had seen no unusual activity.
But many Central Americans are presumed to be in Mexico, waiting their turn to make it past Border Patrol checkpoints and to their destinations in the interior.
"They are not stupid. They're lying low," said Silvestre Reyes, Border Patrol chief for the McAllen sector. "They're probably with a sympathizer, on their own or with an alien smuggler."
Since last spring, more than 100,000 Central Americans have crossed into the United States through the Rio Grande Valley around Brownsville, including 40,000 who have sought political asylum.
To control that flow, an army of INS workers and additional border patrol officers descended on the Texas border this week to carry out the tougher rules for asylum-seekers.
At the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, where an influx of asylum applicants was expected, giant tents were pitched to house detainees and dozens of typewriters were shipped to process applications. So far, none of the tents and few of the typewriters have been needed.
INS officers processed 233 applications for asylum on Tuesday, the first day of the new policy, but just 51 on Wednesday and 10 on Thursday. Only two of the more than 300 applicants were granted asylum.
"Nobody is coming to apply for asylum and that's sort of predictable when 99 percent of these folks are being thrown in jail here, so obviously people are going underground and they are not going to be going through the system anymore, which is a tragedy," said Mark Schneider, an attorney with the Harlingen-based Proyecto Libertad, which represents Central Americans.
Under the old INS procedures, immigrants applying for asylum had to wait weeks while their applications were processed, during which they were released on their own recognizance.
Under the new policy, applications are processed on the spot but those whose applications are denied are being held on bonds between $1,000 and $4,000.