Arrests are up in the busy sector that stretches 400 miles from the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line north through western and northern New York. But not because more people are trying to sneak into the country from Canada.
In a geographical twist, agents attached to the northern border and the 100-mile zone around it have in some instances become de facto southern border agents, frequently arresting people who have entered the country through Texas, New Mexico or Arizona some 2,000 miles away, according to agency statistics reviewed by The Associated Press.
"You're not going to find Mexicans coming in through Canada, generally," Border Patrol spokeswoman Kerry Rogers said.
The records, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, show the Buffalo sector of the Border Patrol has become a perennial leader, among the eight segments that make up the 4,000-mile northern border, in the number of arrests of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In 2008, 1,618 Mexicans were among 3,339 total arrests, a high for the decade for the Buffalo sector, which has led in total illegal immigrant apprehensions each year since 2007.
Arrests by Detroit-based agents also comprise a high percentage of detained Mexicans, statistics show. In 2008, 664 of 961 total apprehensions involved Mexicans. The number jumped to 1,196 out of 1,669 arrests in 2010. In the Swanton, Vt., sector, only 157 of 1,422 people apprehended last year were from Mexico.
Some rural areas of upstate New York have seen a marked increase in the population of Mexican- and Central American-born residents, said Max Pfeffer, a Cornell University sociology professor and researcher who has examined immigration and farmworkers issues. But the increase is not as great as those seen in North Carolina and other Southern states, leading some to wonder what's behind the seemingly aggressive enforcement to the north.
"Relatively speaking, the concentration of immigrants in this area is relatively low," Pfeffer said. "Everyone's saying, 'Why are (agents) so active here?' and I don't know the answer either."
One factor is the number of agents. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of officers assigned to the northern border has increased more than 650 percent, from about 340 in 2001 to more than 2,200 agents today, CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin told senators in May.
And in a December report, the government said the U.S.-Canada boundary poses a more significant terrorist threat than the southern border because of the expanse and limited law enforcement coverage. Last year, the U.S. spent $2.9 billion securing the northern border.
But critics say border agents, whose main job is to protect the country from terrorism, have no business asking passengers for proof of citizenship on trains and buses on routes that don't cross the northern border, even if they are within their agency's 100-mile coverage area.
"Their mission involves securing the border and they're treating their mission as just doing whatever they want within 100 miles of the border and often beyond that," said Nancy Morowetz, a clinical law professor at New York University.
The Border Patrol say it deploys people based on risk and threats posed along the border and that transportation checks, based on intelligence, allow the agency to use staff more effectively, especially in areas with limited resources. Smugglers, the agency said, are known to use trains and buses to move people and drugs deeper into the country.
Court documents indicate illegal immigrant cases frequently begin when Border Patrol agents are called to help interpret at traffic stops or crime scenes. Each year since 1996, 107 to 149 cases have landed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo where defendants are federally charged because they were arrested after having been previously removed from the country, according to the district's U.S. attorney's office. Most have resulted in convictions.
A typical federal case is that of Eduardo Antonio Gonzalez-Valencia, a citizen of El Salvador who pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Rochester in July and was ordered deported.
Gonzalez-Valencia was arrested May 21 on a train at the Amtrak station in Rochester. According to court documents, a uniformed Border Patrol agent was performing transportation checks on the train and talking to passengers in what's described as a "consensual, non-intrusive" manner. Gonzalez-Valencia produced an El Salvador passport and "freely stated that he was illegally present in the United States and without the proper immigration documentation," the agent wrote in an affidavit.
He was arrested and a fingerprint check revealed he'd been arrested at Miami International Airport in 2002 with false documents and immediately returned to El Salvador. It's unclear where he entered the country the second time; federal prosecutors don't track point of entry.
During a recent visit to Buffalo, the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration said the government is balancing the need to welcome and serve those in the country legally while protecting the nation.
"Those different responsibilities are not exclusive of one another," Alejandro Mayorkas said.
Given the numbers of Mexicans and Central Americans arrested in a region that relies heavily on migrant workers for its fruit and vegetable farms, there's concern the high numbers of arrests are negatively affecting even legal workers and permanent residents.
"The active enforcement puts a real chill in communities, especially how much immigrants are involved in communities," said Pfeffer. "A lot of people are staying out of sight because they're fearful even just of being stopped by the authorities, whether they have anything to hide or not."
That chilling effect isn't unique to New York.
Employers say Alabama's strict new immigration law has driven away construction workers, roofers and field hands in the country legally, either because family members don't have the proper papers or because of a hostile atmosphere.
An appeals court this month blocked parts of the law, preventing Alabama from checking the immigration status of students and police from charging immigrants who are unable to prove their citizenship.
For Morowetz, it doesn't matter whether those questioned are from Mexico or Poland or China, she said.
"There's still the question of where did they come into the country. Did they come across the northern border?" she said. "That's really the central question because if people are not coming across the border, what you really have is the Border Patrol in upstate New York engaging in interior enforcement of immigration law."