Whipsawed On The Border

As illegals pour in, the interests of business and ire of citizens are colliding

In the Sonoran Desert, along the border that separates Arizona from Mexico, the game of hide-and-seek between aliens and Border Patrol Agents is getting increasingly deadly. Over the past year, 201 illegals have perished in the brutal heat as they attempted to cross the searing desert floor. Pima County's overwhelmed coroner has had to rent a refrigerated semitrailer at $1,000 a week to serve as an overflow morgue.

This so-called Tucson sector is a 261-mile stretch where the Border Patrol captures as many aliens as in all the rest of the eight other border sectors combined. So far in the past 12 months, 435,589 men, women, and children were apprehended there -- and mostly sent back south. That's enough people to populate a major American city, and the number underscores a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington that says illegals now outnumber legal immigrants.

In the other enforcement zones, agents monitor cameras and check documents from 33 air-conditioned checkpoint booths situated along the key roads that illegals favor. Agents can run computerized checks of fingerprints and license numbers and detain illegals in holding cells. But in the Tucson sector, things are different. With temperatures sometimes soaring to 130F on the pavement of the interstate, agents must make do with traffic cones, water-cooled outdoor fans, and aluminum canopies used to shelter drooping search dogs. A recent visit to a stifling trailer revealed computers jury-rigged to car batteries and not connected to headquarters data banks. As for telephones? No land lines, and cells don't always work.

The state's chief Border Patrol agent, Ronald S. Colburn, a beefy 27-year veteran with two stars on his collar, chafes at the lack of checkpoints and likens it to playing football without a defensive backfield. "If you don't have [a checkpoint], the other team will just run right over you," he says. Since they block key roadway access points north, fixed checkpoints force smugglers and their human cargo to leave the highway and walk through the rough terrain and mesquite, where they can be detected by aircraft, remote control cameras, and ground sensors. A July, 2005, report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that the lack of fixed checkpoints in the Tucson sector reduces effectiveness. Even with 2,400 agents patrolling his zone, Colburn concedes that outside a few border towns, the U.S. still lacks "operational control," in part because of a porous checkpoint system. For every alien caught in the desert, at least three probably make it through, according to rough estimates.


So what's the hangup? For the past five years running, the restriction on checkpoints along the Sonoran Desert has been quietly built into Border Patrol spending bills by a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, Republican Representative Jim Kolbe of Tucson. Kolbe, an outspoken foe of illegal immigration and champion of tougher border controls, acknowledges blocking checkpoints for his district but insists he's not trying to "micro-manage the Border Patrol." Instead, he says, he's responding to constituents who object to a system of highway checkpoints that they feel can clog traffic. Nonsense, replies T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing 6,500 agents. Kolbe may be a hardliner on illegals at home, but in Washington, "[he] is soft on illegal immigration."

Kolbe's dilemma becomes more apparent in Tubac, an artsy enclave just off Interstate 19. A former artist's colony, where dilapidated housing and land were once dirt-cheap, Tubac is being developed as a luxury resort with houses on a minimum of four-acre lots and a new golf course. The average asking price for existing houses is already $637,000, but one recently sold for $12 million. Officials and businesspeople, who asked that their names not be used because they want to maintain good relations with Kolbe, say that developers objected to the Border Patrol checkpoints for one simple reason: They feared the show of guns and badges could scare off "snowbirds" from up north who might not be prepared to live on a major illegal immigration route.

Kolbe concedes that he is being whipsawed by constituents. He fields complaints from ranchers along the border "upset by [the aliens] cutting their fences and puncturing their water tanks and leaving trash and cutting trails." In fact, Kolbe's desert cabin near Nogales has been repeatedly burglarized by illegals. On the other hand, when the Border Patrol arrested several busloads of illegal migrants headed to the lettuce and pepper fields in western Arizona, Kolbe heard from the Western Growers Assn., too. "It used to be that everybody winked at" the daily flow of pickers from Mexico, he says.

The contrast between Kolbe's hardline rhetoric and his actual record is symptomatic of the predicament in which the Republican Party finds itself. Despite ringing GOP calls to crack the whip, business lobbies, particularly those representing the retail, construction, tourism, and landscaping industries, are pushing to keep a steady flow of low-wage workers into the labor pool. If the liberal approach of Arizona's usually conservative congressional delegation is any guide, business seems to be prevailing so far.

Kolbe and House colleague Jeff Flake, as well as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), are co-sponsors of a bill that seeks to grant partial amnesty to illegal workers. Arizona's other Republican Senator, John Kyl, backs a slightly tougher measure that would still create a guest-worker program. President Bush, who is expected to mount a new push for partial amnesty in a matter of weeks, will try to satisfy both his worker-hungry business allies and his party's plan to enroll more culturally conservative Hispanic voters.

Arizona business leaders and pro-immigration groups back the partial amnesty and guest-worker concept. Tourism and construction, the "key drivers" of the state economy, are heavily dependent on immigrant labor, says Barry G. Broome, chief executive officer of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. "The illegal workforce can be converted into a positive development."


But many illegals can't be so easily turned into upstanding citizens. Of the aliens caught sneaking over the border in the Tucson sector during the past 12 months, 31,000 had U.S. criminal records, Border Patrol figures show. The immigration trade is now dominated by professional smugglers who move humans and drugs north using vehicles stolen by organized gangs. The Phoenix area has the highest rate of auto theft in the nation, according to police and auto insurers. Smugglers resist arrest, sometimes with rocks or even gunfire against agents who generally patrol alone in remote regions where backup can be an hour away. Agent James A. Hawkins recently surprised a group of 30 illegals whose guide ordered them to throw rocks. "Big skull-crushers," recalls Hawkins, a slim 36-year-old. This year, agents have logged 241 assaults, twice last year's 118.

At a temporary interior checkpoint on I-19, some 24 miles north of the border, the debate over tactics comes into sharp focus. In the shimmering heat, 18 illegal aliens, including two young women, all dressed in long pants and heavy shirts against the sun and the mesquite thorns, huddle dejectedly under an awning. After drinking all the available water at the makeshift checkpoint, they wait for a Border Patrol van to take them to Nogales for processing and then a trip back south. A coyote or smuggler had dropped them off with instructions on how to skirt the checkpoint, but the group was easily spotted waiting for the final ride north. Score one for the feds. Still, shrugs one agent, the odds are high that most of those who got tagged will soon be back for another risky round of hide-and-seek.

By Paul Magnusson in the Sonoran Desert

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