A Border Ritual That No Fence Can Stop

The two young Mexican smugglers whom I met in a dark Tijuana restaurant had been reluctant to take me along. But after I convinced them that I wouldn't reveal their identities, they finally agreed. For the task of sneaking me into my own country, they wouldn't even charge me the customary $100 fee. But for the trio who would try to cross with me--a 17-year-old girl, a boy the same age, and a barefoot 76-year-old woman--the trip north to Tijuana and the smugglers' fee had cost every peso they could raise.

This was nearly two years ago, on a chilly Friday night in August, 1990. But little has changed on the border since then. Every night, illegal immigrants still gather on the same hill overlooking San Diego. That night, as we waited, I could see others chatting quietly among themselves. Some bought coffee from the vendors who make their living selling cigarettes, spicy peanuts, and sweaters to the thousands who are attempting to cross the border each week.

One of our smugglers gave us a piece of advice: If the border patrol comes after us, do not run. We should stick together at all costs. Separate, and we'll be prey for bandits. I have since seen police reports that confirm this--a chilling list of murders, rapes, and robberies committed daily in this two-mile-long no-man's-land.

On cue, we sprinted down the hill, only to have one of the smugglers quickly rein us in. "Stop," he hissed. "Wait here." We crouched in waist-high brush while he pushed ahead to find the border patrol.

`DON'T LOOK UP.' Suddenly, we were moving again--walking, running, stopping, listening. The lights of south San Diego were getting bright. We were almost there. Then, a helicopter was overhead, its spotlight sweeping over us as we slid down a hill toward a pond of sewage runoff from Tijuana. "Don't look up," one smuggler urged. He seemed to think that the light would reflect off of our eyes, and we would be spotted.

I heard people running. Someone shouted something about a horse. We were in the U.S., and mounted border patrols were chasing people through the bush. One of the smugglers called my name and brought me out of my hiding place to show me a sight I'll never forget. Behind us were hundreds of men, women, and children streaming into my country.

We reached a paved road. Tires screeched. There were border patrol officers in several all-terrain vehicles. They didn't get me, but they got the other three. The old woman couldn't move fast enough, a smuggler told me. The two teenagers were apprehended as they tried to hurry her along.

In this one spot alone, a thousand people must have passed through in that wave--which was timed to coincide with the border patrol's 5 a.m. shift change. Was it always like this? "Every Friday and Saturday night, it's the same," said the smuggler.

And so it remains, despite a 10-foot-high steel fence that now runs from the Pacific Ocean nine miles inland. "We're throwing everything we have at the problem, but not much has changed," says Ted D. Hampton, patrol agent in charge of the El Cajon station east of San Diego. Back when I crossed, the border patrol in San Diego County was nabbing an average of 1,500 illegal aliens a day--half of the U.S. total. Now, apprehensions are up, and officials say the numbers of those who slip through the net is, too.

It's no wonder, then, that the U.S.-Mexico border is something of a joke, both to those crossing and those trying to guard it. There is the constant ritual of processing the hundreds of would-be immigrants who have been apprehended. Before busing them back to Mexico, border patrol workers must fill out papers for each one. On average, this takes no more than two minutes. "If you've got an illegal alien who's unfamiliar with the routine, it could take five minutes," says Steven Kean, a border patrol spokesman.

FOOTHOLDS. Usually, though, everybody knows the drill. The officers say the most demoralizing aspect of their work is catching the same people over and over again. "Once they're dropped off back in Mexico," says Hampton, "all they have to do is make a right and another right, and they're back in the U.S. again."

Now that U.S. Marines have installed the steel fence, that second right takes a little bit of doing in some spots--but not very much.

All but the old or infirm "can go over it easily," Hampton says, either with a helper providing a leg up or by leaning a ladder against it on the Mexican side. Its very design, somewhat corrugated, provides footholds for the nimble, Hampton

notes, and for humanitarian reasons, razor wire or other obstacles were not placed on top. "It wasn't put up to hurt people," says Hampton, "just to slow them down and stop vehicle drive-throughs."

Now, those who would brazenly barrel across in four-wheel-drive vehicles simply circumvent the fenced sections. If anything, the border has gotten wilder in the past few years, and smugglers have taken to ramming their vehicles into those of the border patrol to knock them out of the chase. Other disconcerting trends: huge increases in seizures of drugs and counterfeit documents. Narcotics arrests "are out of sight," Hampton tells me. From October through April, 1991, cocaine seizures were 10 times higher than for all of the previous 12 months.

"Are we overwhelmed?" says Hampton. "We're short of manpower, and we're short of equipment. I guess you could call that overwhelmed."

CONVENIENT LOOPHOLE. Recent litigation hasn't made the job any easier. Anyone claiming to be Guatemalan, able to answer a few simple questions, and requesting asylum may stay in the United States until given a full hearing. Eager to take advantage of that loophole, many apprehended Mexicans now tell the border patrol that they are Guatemalan. If they can convince the agents, the aliens' names and alleged contact references are taken, they are admitted into the U.S., and the majority are never found again.

Border patrol agents have resigned themselves to the fact that nothing will keep the most impoverished Mexicans from heading north. Even the recent Mexican business boom hasn't eased the pressure. "Until the economic situation in Mexico improves dramatically, they're going to keep coming," says Hampton. "You can't keep a guy in Sinaloa who makes $2 a day to support his family. There's no question he's going to come up here to look for work."

A strengthening economy is unlikely to keep pace with Mexico's population, which was estimated at more than 90 million in 1991 and is expected to swell to 107 million by the turn of the century. Even backers of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement doubt that its fruits will trickle down to Mexico's lowest economic rung--the one inhabited by the typical illegal alien.

If there's a bright note in this for Hampton and his fellow officers, it's that they're sure they'll never be out of a job.

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