Border agents tread the fine line between friend and foe, barriers and access, technology and tin.
I am standing in government offices about 30 feet above the dense northbound traffic at the Mexico border in San Ysidro, Calif., when word comes that officers have fingered a suspected smuggler and confiscated his vehicle for closer inspection. Together with ranking Customs and Border Protection officials in the San Diego sector, I rush downstairs to see an old gray car stripped down, its seats uprooted to reveal bales of marijuana carefully encased in transparent plastic wrapping.
This small moment of drama unfolds just after I've arrived at the busiest border crossing in the world, where U.S. agents process 50,000 vehicles a day with an average of 2.5 passengers each, and 20,000 to 30,000 pedestrians. Smugglers routinely are part of the mix. Back upstairs a few minutes later, we're told there's another bust, probably a load of undocumented immigrants. We descend again to witness in quick succession no fewer than four nondescript cars-a Chevy Impala, a Chevy Malibu, an old Dodge sedan and a small Acura-as they're driven into CBP's secondary inspection facility.
Agents pop the Impala's trunk. Stiffly, with an assist from a CBP officer, a sizable man clambers out. Unbelievably, he is followed by five other people, four of them women. They all sit on the curb, one a teenager in pink sneakers, stoically awaiting their fate as if some had been through this routine before.
They are a small part of the human tide that sweeps up from Mexico by the hundreds of thousands each year. Less than a week before the Senate buried immigration reform on June 29, I was getting a firsthand look at our line of defense on the populous and porous southern border. I was privileged to see it by land, sea and air, thanks to the efforts of public affairs officer Vincent E. Bond and Border Patrol Supervisory Agent James Jacques, and the time generously given me by Adele J. Fasano, director of field operations for the Customs and Border Protection San Diego sector.
The Enforcement Ballet
Below Fasano's offices, a sea of vehicles heads for CBP checkpoints in 24 northbound lanes. Today, the wait is about 90 minutes. Hidden from view, a line of pedestrian traffic is being processed. All in all, this border crossing processed 40 million people last year; 33 million in vehicles and 7 million on foot.
In four of the vehicle lanes, the cutting edge of high-tech border control is on display. In these so-called SENTRI lanes, travelers have paid $129 to $258 for five-year passes that get them through quickly. After submitting their personal data, including tax returns, to U.S. border authorities, they have obtained identification cards and windshield stickers embedded with chips that transmit information directly to in-spectors' computers. In the patrol booth, a monitor displays pictures of a driver, her two children and her car. The inspector steps outside his booth to ask a question or two and then sends them on their way.
So far, 82,000 people have signed up for the SENTRI program in the San Diego sector. These kinds of ID documents, with chips that transmit data to inspectors' machines, are the way of the future, Fa-sano says. We are getting there gradually as more people obtain passports equipped with such chips. Green cards and other IDs likely will follow, easing the job of checking on the people who seek entry and re-entry into the United States. "We're only as good as the technology we have," she says.
In the slow lanes, inspectors work with much less data. Drivers pass through two sets of automated checks. One takes a digital photo of license plates and matches them against a huge CBP database. The second check is for radiation. Nothing sinister has ever been detected by these readers, I'm told, though there are about 20 false-positive reads a day from bananas, loads of tile and cancer patients who are returning from radiation treatment in Tijuana. Drivers who seem suspicious can be checked, but only by typing their names into the CBP computer system.
With pressure to move all this traffic along, CBP cannot open many trunks. So Fasano and her team have set up a tiered inspection system. In the pre-primary tier, teams of inspectors roam through the traffic lanes on foot, or observe them from above, looking for erratic behavior such as lane-switching or an ignition key that is not on a chain with other keys-a sign that the car has just been given over to a driver-for-hire. Several officers have dogs trained to sniff for narcotics or human contraband. Canines "are particularly effective," Fasano says. Indeed, agent Brian Stoddard's dog, Lisa, uncovered 1,000 pounds of dope in June.
In the caldron of heat and fumes, inspectors are allowed to roam the lanes for just a few hours. That's true as well of inspectors in the second-tier primary booths. These officers dance an elaborate ballet of switchovers from lane to lane during their four-hour shifts. Every 20 minutes, they move to a new booth, in a computer-dictated random pattern. The shuffle helps ensure that the bad guys can't identify a lane where inspections are cursory, or count on dealing with a friendly officer. Corruption is part of the scene at the border, and managers must be on guard.
Making money is the game, and in secondary, I see some who had hoped to profit-drivers hired by the traffickers. One is a scruffy teenager, cuffed with hands behind his back; another driver follows, soft-looking, perhaps a man, perhaps a woman. They represent two of the typologies of contraband drivers: down-on-their-luck teenagers who need the $500 fee perhaps to support a drug habit, or homeless people, cleaned and dressed up to look respectable while driving the down-and-out cars they're given. To my surprise, I learn that 70 percent of the drivers are Americans.
Desperation and Resignation
Reading the faces and the body language of the hunted and the hunters along the border, I see both desperation and resignation. The migrants are desperate for a better life. They give themselves and their children, even some unborn, over to criminals who might, or might not, get them through our defenses alive. The fee for this service has been going up. At San Ysidro, I'm told it's between $2,000 and $3,000, while Marine operations officers say it's as high as $4,500 at sea. In mid-June, one of the dogs identified human cargo representing at least $50,000 in fees: A California-plated 1978 Dodge recreational vehicle, driven by an American citizen, turned out to contain no fewer than 20 undocumented migrants.
Those caught seem resigned to their fate. They'll be processed in a quick system of tiered justice that puts many who accept voluntary return on buses back across the border. Others are put through a quasi-judicial process that, in the space of about 45 minutes, declares them unsuitable for admission to this country for five years, 20 years or life. One tier up, people are detained and sent before an immigration judge. The most serious cases are brought to the U.S attorney for prosecution in federal court.
In holding pens, groups of illegal immigrants passively await transport south. But I see despair in a tall, shabbily dressed woman, probably in her 40s, who was apprehended with a child still in diapers. Agents don't yet know whether she's the mother of the wailing child, or is smuggling it north to relatives or for adoption in the United States. Through a small window, we peer into a padded cell holding a potentially violent serial human trafficker, a tall, thin, middle-aged man with the glint of irrationality in his eyes; our law enforcement system will throw the book at him. Obviously, the drivers are criminals, while the trafficked occupy a more ambiguous position-halfway between perpetrator and victim. The paymasters-who collect the fees and pay the drivers-are the big fish, members of criminal organizations. But they don't show up at the border.
The big fish are swimming in dough derived from trafficking in humans and narcotics. From the air, one can see the green- and red-tile roofs of fancy villas just across the wall in Tijuana, on a hill a few hundred yards from the beach. They probably belong, I'm told, to some of the narcotrafficantes, and they surely have the coveted Pacific sunset view.
From a helicopter, and during a driving tour with agent Jacques, I get a good look at our defenses along the border. In the early 1980s, U.S. authorities built a fence made of corrugated steel landing mats left over from World War II and the Vietnam War. The rusty barrier, about 8 feet high, doesn't stop the determined. We see five migrants just inside it near the beach, and three clamber back over as we buzz them from the air. Narcotics smugglers erect ramps over the fence, strong enough to support a pickup truck and its stash. Since 1996, authorities have been building a second fence 125 to 150 feet north of the first fence, along most of the 14-mile stretch from the ocean to Otay Mountain, just east of densely populated Tijuana. Between the two is a packed dirt road, where the double-fencing system conjures up the image of a DMZ-a demilitarized zone into which trespassers would venture at their peril. Tall towers line the area, equipped with lights and cameras, part of a system that also includes seismic and magnetic sensors that can alert agents to vehicular or pedestrian movements. The secondary fence, made of see-through Sandia steel mesh (invented by Sandia National Laboratory) rises to a height of 14 feet. The system isn't perfect; migrants still test the barriers and deploy ladders to climb over. I observe that the secondary fence could have been built to much higher standards of deterrence-with concertina wire on top, for instance-but Jacques says immigration rights groups viewed that idea as in-humane. And our government agreed, demonstrating our nation's profound ambivalence on immigration issues. The fencing has pushed illegal immigration east, into the mountains that rise along most of the San Diego sector, which runs from the ocean to the Arizona border. Immigrant groups have protested this as well, observing that treks through steep, treacherous terrain are dangerous for those the coyotes, as the guides are called, bring across the border. Much of the foot traffic in the mountains begins at night. If observed, these migrants are intercepted by law enforcement personnel flown by Blackhawk helicopter to mountaintop landing spots. We fly over a steep, V-shaped canyon, where there's a little shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, invisible by day, but sometimes faintly glowing at night with candles lighted by the faithful.
I can sense frustration in the people charged with stemming the northbound tide of drugs and migrants, a feeling that they're sticking a finger in a leaky dike. None of the agents I talk with supports any kind of amnesty or lenient treatment for migrants living illegally in this country. Indeed, they believe that the last attempt at reform, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, encouraged more to come by granting a form of amnesty to the roughly 3 million undocumented immigrants then living here. Now, the commonly used estimate of illegal residents is 12 million. Down on the border, they think that's conservative. Jacques notes that we have apprehended an annual average of 1.3 million migrants in the past dozen years. If we catch only half of those making the attempt, as some estimate, that would mean the 12 million is a lowball estimate. Perhaps the number is more like 20 million. Washington agrees we must stem the tide, as policy-makers have approved the hiring of 6,000 new Border Patrol agents, increasing the force to 18,000. Operation Jump Start last year assigned 1,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen to work in the San Diego sector.
Apprehensions in the sector are far below the peak year of 1992, when 565,581 migrants were caught. Last year, Jacques says, authorities stopped 142,208 people, from 149 of the world's 193 countries. With terrorism job one at the Homeland Security Department, agents pay special attention to OTMs (other than Mexicans) who fly into Mexico to attempt the border crossing. San Diego is home to one of the largest Iraqi populations in the country. Officials won't say much about anti-terrorism activities, but have apprehended some people on government watch lists.
The fencing, sensors, cameras and other defensive measures have reduced the need for human patrols. The five miles between San Ysidro and the Otay Mesa ports of entry used to require shifts of 40 agents, but now only eight are on patrol. In the rolling, desiccated countryside, agents get around by all-terrain and four-wheel drive vehicles, as well as on horseback. Near the coastline, we run into a team of three agents just mounting up, within shouting distance of the area where, a day later, I'd see migrants climbing over. Agents Wayne Miller, William Pena and Claudia Mayer are accompanied by their dog, Joki, that's trained to sniff out people hiding in clumps of thick brush.
The Border Patrol here is assisted by air and marine interdiction agents who operate out of the Navy base on Coronado Island in San Diego Bay. The air operations group fields several helicopters and a Citation jet, flown by supervisory air interdiction officer Randy Arrington, an iconoclastic former Navy pilot, Ph.D. professor and novelist, author of Kerosene Cowboys (IUniverse Inc., 2007). Arrington is happy to pose beside his airplane, but our helicopter pilot, Adam Heinecke, does not want his picture taken, saying big-time smugglers have been placing cash bounties on the heads of U.S. law enforcement officers.
On a Saturday afternoon, I go on patrol with one of CBP's "go-fast" boats-a 39-foot Midnight Express, whose four 225-horsepower outboard engines propel us at 60 knots, or 70 miles per hour, down the coast. Marine enforcement officers Alvin Eiselen, Allen Gustafson and Eric Zegowitz say there's a lot of smuggling in coastal waters. "Small boats, big boats, swimmers, surfboarders, you name it," Eiselen says. Working with radar and intelligence from commercial fishermen, marina operators, Towboat USA and others in the marine community, the officers patrol north to Los Angeles and have apprehended big loads of drugs and migrants. They're equipped with 12-gauge shotguns that fire special, classified rounds able to take out both outboard and inboard engines of boats that refuse to yield to inspection demands and pepperball launchers to disable smugglers aboard the craft with a hard blast of pepper spray.
This is part of the domain that Fasano has overseen for the past four years. San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and four other land ports of entry, two cargo facilities and an airport/seaport, process more than 90 million human beings and conveyances a year. She led the difficult merger of customs, border protection and agricultural inspection workforces, working to reduce the number of unions from three to one. Agents say integration of the three agencies is still a work in progress, and as Fasano notes, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., is pushing legislation to remove the agricultural inspectors from CBP jurisdiction. Meantime, because CBP agents don't meet the definition of federal law enforcement officers they've been leaving for the higher pay and benefits offered by agencies whose agents do qualify. Replacing them isn't easy. Recruiting is done by CBP headquarters in quasi-automated fashion, and many recruits can't afford San Diego's high-cost housing. A pressing issue, too, has been the need to modernize the San Ysidro crossing, a $550 million project that hinges on getting financing from agencies at the state and federal levels.
These are tough management problems that Fasano will hand over to her successor this summer. She's moving in August to become CBP service area director in Newark, N.J., a post where she'll oversee a huge container port and a busy airport just a few miles from New York City. Fasano's life story of gritty determination to rise high in the ranks of the male-dominated world of federal law enforcement suggests that she will be a big asset on the East Coast.