Up Against the Wall

Operation Gatekeeper slows illegal immigrants at the California border, but Border Patrol agents see no end to the desperate race across the line.


hile most Americans spend their weeknights at home watching television, U.S. Border Patrol agent John Kennedy sits in a Ford Bronco high in the mountains of San Diego's East County, watching a real drama unfold on the television monitor before him. The monitor is connected to an infrared scope trained on the San Ysidro Mountains bordering Mexico. What looks like a glowing inchworm on the flickering green screen is really a line of people, picking their way through the rough terrain in the dark. They are undocumented immigrants, illegally making their way north from Mexico toward Interstate 8 in Southern California.

They move slowly, barely perceptibly, on the screen in front of Kennedy. Moving more deliberately on the screen are the two Border Patrol agents Kennedy is directing. From the Bronco, more than a mile from the immigrants and the two agents, the exercise appears as a high-tech cat and mouse game. Kennedy tries to anticipate the movements of the pursued, then radios his instructions to the pursuers. Sometimes the immigrants vanish in a bank of trees before the agents can catch up with them. Sometimes they are apprehended.

"The main thing is to catch them before they hit the highway," says Kennedy. Once they make it to the highway, their chances of being caught drop exponentially.

Kennedy is one of hundreds of new agents deployed to San Diego County over the last two years in an effort to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants into Southern California. The success or failure of that effort will weigh heavily in the ongoing national debate over U.S. immigration policy.

Every year since 1989, U.S. law enforcement officials have apprehended more than a million immigrants entering the United States illegally. Most simply walked across the southwest border of Mexico. Last year, 40 percent of the 1,324,202 illegal immigrants apprehended were picked up in the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, which covers 66 miles from the Pacific Ocean east along the border.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants escape apprehension, although the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a nonpartisan think tank, estimates there are about 5.4 million immigrants now living in the United States illegally. The costs of illegal immigration also are unknown, but a CIS analysis of 1992 data, including taxes paid by illegal immigrants, suggests illegal immigrants consumed $29 billion worth of education, health care, welfare and incarceration resources that year. (A Rice University estimate put the 1992 costs as high as $44 billion; an Urban Institute study, which did not consider the costs of education or job displacement, concluded contributions by immigrants offset their costs for a $29 billion benefit.) Whatever the costs-and most believe them to be great-the influx of illegal immigrants has been called by some an invasion worthy of military intervention.

Republican presidential contender Pat Buchanan proposed building a wall the length of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Others, such as the American Friends Service Committee, would dismantle the Border Patrol altogether. The issue has become political fodder during this presidential election year, particularly in vote-rich border states like California, but Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government are calling for tough measures to control illegal immigration. Congress is working out the particulars of an immigration reform bill now; few legislators are opposed to plans to double the size of the Border Patrol to nearly 10,000 agents over the next four years.

California Bound

Nowhere has illegal immigration been more troubling than in the Southern California communities that press against the border with Tijuana, Mexico. The border between Tijuana and San Diego County is the busiest land border crossing in the world, and historically, the busiest back door for illegal immigrants entering the United States, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an arm of the Justice Department and the Border Patrol's parent organization.

Until recently, 25 percent of all apprehensions along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico took place in Imperial Beach, which lies between San Diego and Tijuana and covers the area along the border from the Pacific Ocean to the San Ysidro port of entry five miles inland.

Getting to Tijuana from Central America or the interior of Mexico is as simple as getting on a bus. And until recently, getting from there to Los Angeles or other U.S. cities was as simple as a quick dash across the border to Interstate 5, where waiting vehicles would ferry immigrants north to jobs and new lives. Where no rides were waiting, immigrants could blend relatively easily into the urban landscape just beyond the border.

That is changing now. In October 1994, the Justice Department launched Operation Gatekeeper, an unprecedented attempt to control the border in the San Diego sector, beginning with Imperial Beach. Using a new strategy and dramatically increasing the number of Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement agents in the sector, the Justice Department has managed to stem the tide of illegal immigrants washing over Imperial Beach.

"We were seeing so many large groups (of immigrants) day and night. They would come over our fence and through our yard," says William Adams, a resident of Imperial Beach for 37 years since he retired from the Navy in 1959. There were so many, and Adams saw them so frequently, the immigrants became just another aspect of the landscape, he says.

During the daytime Adams would frequently call the Border Patrol and report the trespassers, "But at night I didn't bother. I'd be up all night if I tried to do that."

Before Gatekeeper was launched, large stretches of Imperial Beach became a de facto no man's land every evening as hundreds of Mexicans and Central Americans intent on moving north began congregating on the U.S. side of the border. They were joined by the smugglers who charged exorbitant fees for pointing out the lights of San Diego or arranging rides north and the bandits who preyed upon everyone.

"We were getting run over every night," says Mark Moody, a supervisory Border Patrol agent who has 10 years of experience, most of it in Imperial Beach. The sheer mass of humanity made it impossible to control the situation, he says. "It was fashionable to say we apprehended one in three or one in four illegal crossers but I think that's probably a reach."

The situation began to change in late 1993. In a move both symbolic and pragmatic, National Guardsmen were called upon to replace the intermittent, dilapidated chain-link fence that ran between Tijuana and the California border towns with a corrugated metal wall made from surplus Vietnam-era landing mats. The wall, which runs 14 miles east from the Pacific Ocean, can be scaled and tunnels can be dug under it, but it nonetheless provides an adequate line of demarcation. 1994 brought the installation of stadium lights that operate throughout the night, improvements in identification and monitoring technology and a steady increase in the number of Border Patrol agents. Residents and government officials say the border is now finally coming under control in the western part of the San Diego sector.

A World Apart

Directly north of the wall in Imperial Beach lies Border Field State Park. The park abuts the Pacific and runs several hundred yards between the wall and the residential section of Imperial Beach. In this region of gorgeous parks, rugged mountains and picture-perfect coastline, Border Field is an anomaly. The Tijuana River, which empties into the Pacific nearby, is so polluted swimming is not recommended.

The scrubby trees and brush that fill Border Field hold little interest for the average visitor, but they provide terrific cover for those sneaking into the country illegally. Because U.S. environmental laws prohibit Border Patrol agents from driving through the park or cutting back the foliage, the park continues to attract such visitors. The stadium lights and increased number of agents make getting through the park more difficult, but there are still plenty of people willing to take their chances crawling under the wall or dropping over it.

"The main thing with Imperial Beach is when you cross, we have basically one chance to apprehend you," says Moody. Depending on where in Imperial Beach one crosses, it is a 15-second to a 15-minute dash to a highway or residential area. "If we don't apprehend you the minute you cross, you're gone. We won't see you."

East of the park, Border Patrol agents drive along the border on unimproved roads built by the National Guard. The terrain is an unrelenting mix of peaks and canyons. Midday in July there is not much activity. The only people seen breaching the wall are two young Mexican girls who have crawled through a hole underneath it. They seem more intent on playing in the garbage that has accumulated along the wall on the U.S. side than in heading north.

As Moody drives, he points out a mesa, known as the "soccer field," where immigrants used to meet in the evenings and charge north en masse. No one is there now. Since the wall was erected and agents were installed so visibly it is difficult for the immigrants to congregate openly.

High above a canyon the wall abruptly stops, unable to make the steep climb down. Three men stand on the edge in Mexico peering down what is called Smugglers Canyon. Arms were smuggled south through the canyon in the early 1900s to fuel the Mexican Revolution. Later, during Prohibition, alcohol was the contraband of choice. Today, it's drugs and people. One indication of Gatekeeper's success may be the increased fees smugglers charge for moving people across the border.

"Three years ago you could pay between $150 and $200 for a trip to L.A.," Moody says. "You crossed at Tijuana one night and were in L.A. the next afternoon. It wasn't a big deal. If you didn't make it one day you tried the next and you paid when you got to L.A." Now, the fee is as high as $500 to $700, Moody says. "We had a documented case two weeks ago where they were paying 1,000 bucks apiece. It's cash up front and if you don't make it, well, you scrounge up the bucks and try again."

At the close of 1993 there were fewer than 1,000 Border Patrol agents assigned to San Diego sector. For want of support personnel, computers and other equipment, much of the agents' time was spent on time-consuming administrative and maintenance work. Because there weren't enough vehicles to go around, agents patrolling the border, or "working the line," had to drive to the station every time they apprehended someone, leaving that part of the border unprotected. Likewise, shift changes left large sections of the border unpatrolled as agents returned to the station so other agents could use their vehicles on the next shift.

Now there are more than 1,700 agents, most assigned to the far western part of the sector, including Imperial Beach and the adjacent areas of Chula Vista and Brown Field. There are enough vehicles to cover the border and support staff has increased by 44 percent to 199, freeing more agents to work the line.

Operation Gatekeeper also brought a new strategy for deploying Border Patrol agents in the San Diego sector. Prior to Gatekeeper, agents worked in highly visible places only during daylight hours. At night, when the vast majority of illegal crossings took place, there were not enough agents to effectively create a visible presence. Agents working on the line were overrun nightly as immigrants rushed the border in large groups, some throwing rocks at the few agents they encountered. The result was a violent, chaotic border and a dangerous place for an agent to be assigned. That too is changing: In 1990, there were 217 assaults against Border Patrol agents. In 1995, there were only 39.

Moody credits the drop in violence to new tactics. With more agents, the Border Patrol dramatically increased the number of high-visibility agent positions along the border and maintains them around the clock. In addition, there are more backup agents immediately behind them, many of whom are also highly visible.

In Imperial Beach, where patrols have been most heavily focused, results are beginning to show. Apprehensions were down 35 percent from 1994 to 1995, from 185,514 to 120,630. From October 1995 through June 1996, apprehensions totaled 60,252, compared with 83,702 during the same period the previous year. The success in Imperial Beach has created problems elsewhere, however. Not surprisingly, instead of being deterred, much of the illegal traffic has pushed further east into the sector, into the mountains of El Cajon and Campo.

Working the Line

Jose Delacruz Ramirez looks neither afraid nor surprised as he is brought into the Imperial Beach Border Patrol station where he will watch a Spanish video instructing him of his rights and be held for a short time before he is put on a bus back to Mexico. He looks only tired, in his green sweatshirt, blue jeans and Reebok sneakers. He says he traveled from Colima, Mexico, a small city west of Mexico City, about 1,300 miles from Tijuana as the crow flies.

The vast majority of illegal immigrants crossing the southwest border are Mexican, and like Delacruz, looking for work. The collapse of the Mexican peso in December 1994 has only exacerbated the pressure on the border. A job that pays a few dollars a day in Mexico may pay a few dollars an hour in the United States. In the eyes of many of those who attempt to cross it, the border is all that separates poverty from prosperity.

Delacruz was heading to San Diego to find a job when he was picked up by the Border Patrol three miles west of the San Ysidro port of entry. Whatever this setback means to him, it does not show in his calm demeanor. This is not a new journey for him. He says he's worked in San Diego before.

An agent types the details of the apprehension into a computer and enters Delacruz' fingerprints electronically. There is no match, which means he has no criminal record in the United States and has not been apprehended since the electronic identification system was installed here in 1994. Not all illegal immigrants are looking for work. Smugglers, whether trafficking in people or drugs, are the most frequent offenders. During 1994, the federal government spent about $400 million to incarcerate 18,929 illegal immigrants convicted of federal crimes, according to a Justice Department report.

Agents have no way to verify the information illegal immigrants give them, but since they've begun tracking the fingerprints of those they apprehend and comparing them with a federal database of criminal fingerprints, they are beginning to determine the number of repeat crossers and single out criminals for prosecution.

Despite the decline in apprehensions at Imperial Beach, not everyone believes Operation Gatekeeper has been a success.

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the Border Patrol's union, says "It's a fraud." According to Bonner, many more illegal immigrants are being apprehended in Imperial Beach than are being processed by the Border Patrol. The reason they're not processed, he says, is to make it appear as if fewer people are being apprehended and that Gatekeeper has been an effective deterrent.

Dozens of agents have complained to him of being pressured to underreport the number of immigrants they apprehend, Bonner says. But Bonner won't produce any of those agents to be interviewed, despite assurances of anonymity.

In early August, one Border Patrol agent testified in disguise before the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight in San Diego. The agent said he had been coerced by supervisors into falsifying records and ignoring immigrants walking across the border.

When told of Bonner's comments, one Border Patrol agent working the line in Imperial Beach in July said he believes Bonner must have been misunderstood or misquoted. "Look, if he really said that, then I don't think he knows what he's talking about. He isn't down here every day seeing what we're seeing. We still have people coming through Imperial Beach but it's nothing like it used to be."

Another agent is more blunt: "He must be out of his mind. This is a different world out here since we started [Operation Gatekeeper]." Neither agent said they had ever been asked to underreport the number of immigrants they see or apprehend. Both agents, members of the union, requested anonymity.

Adams agrees: "Anybody who tells you Gatekeeper isn't working in Imperial Beach just doesn't know what they're talking about. If it's not working then why am I only seeing a fraction of the people I used to see? This is the best it's been in the 37 years we've lived here." Adams says he still sometimes sees what he believes are illegal immigrants when he takes his regular early morning walks, but nowhere near the numbers he used to see in his 35 years as an Imperial Beach resident before Operation Gatekeeper.

Blair King, the city manager for Imperial Beach, says, "Whatever they're doing it appears to be working. The amount of illegal traffic has definitely decreased and the crime rate is down." King's greatest concern now is that the Justice Department will move Border Patrol agents and other resources out of Imperial Beach to deal with the increasing illegal traffic further east.

"I'm also concerned that attitudes in Washington may change after the election," regardless of who is sitting in the White House, King says.

Ramping Up

Since 1993, Congress and Clinton Administration officials have increased funding for the Border Patrol by 102 percent. The Administration's 1997 budget request for the Border Patrol is $716 million, $362 million over the agency's 1993 budget. Most of the money will pay for new agents, all of whom will be assigned to the southwest border. More than 800 new agents were hired this year, and another 900 to 1,000 will be hired next year, says Renee Harris, a recruiter and assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol.

Even with the new hires, truly controlling the border may be an elusive goal. "We don't really have the magic number it would take to control the entire [southwest] border. We thought we knew how many it would take in San Diego but we grossly underestimated that," says Doug Kruhm, chief of the Border Patrol. Kruhm believes it will take about 2,000 agents to fully control the San Diego sector.

The personnel surge represents a huge training and management task. At the Border Patrol Academy in Glynco, Ga., the number of classes taught jumped from 10 in 1995 to 23 this year, says Roy Scarborough, deputy chief of the academy. Beginning next year, the majority of Border Patrol agents will be trained at the agency's new facility in Charleston, S.C.

The screening and education process for new agents is one of the most rigorous among federal law enforcement programs. Agents are subject to background checks and receive 19 weeks of intensive training and examinations in Spanish, immigration law, and marksmanship before they graduate from the academy and take an assignment on the border. Once they're assigned to the border, they work with experienced agents four days a week and spend one full day in the classroom. After working the border for six months, they take their first probationary exam in Spanish and immigration law. They must pass both sections; there are no second chances. They continue as trainees for the remainder of their first year, when they take a final exam. If they pass, they become journeymen agents. If they fail, they find a new line of work.

"This is an extremely complex job that a lot of people underestimate," Scarborough says. Before 1992, when the Border Patrol revised its screening process, 30 percent of new hires washed out of Spanish alone. Now, with tougher screening of potential agents, the attrition rate of new agents is about 10 percent.

One of the challenges facing Border Patrol officials is the rate at which new agents are added. "We can't ramp up the border overnight," Scarborough says, although the agency is under tremendous pressure to do so in some cases. In areas where there are few veteran agents the agency must move slowly when adding new trainees. The job is tremendously stressful and putting too many new agents in an area at once could be disastrous.

To prepare agents for the stress, life at the academy is made intentionally stressful, Scarborough says. The pressures on the border are various. For most agents, there are the countless rocks that will be thrown at them, the ruthless smugglers who will take any risk to get their people and goods across and the usual dangers of law enforcement. For women, who comprise only 3 percent of the force, there's the added pressure of making it in a male-dominated environment.

For Hispanic agents, there can be a different kind of pressure. "It's a difficult job," says Marco Ramirez, a senior patrol agent who grew up in both Mexico and the United States. "You deal with human pain and desperation on a daily basis." He's been called a "traitor" and a "coconut" (brown on the outside, white on the inside) by some of the Mexicans he's apprehended, but he doesn't let it get to him. "Sometimes they play on what they believe your sympathies to be. They remind you of your mother and everything else in the book. Others admire you for doing your job without being corrupted," he says.

"Not just the Hispanic [agents] feel sympathy for them. The Anglos, too, feel the anguish of some of these people. It's just human. But I have always believed in law enforcement," Ramirez says. "I'm proud of this job. It's challenging and more than anything else you have a sense of doing something for your country," he says.

Ramirez also has the satisfaction of watching the formerly chaotic border at Imperial Beach come under control, he says, a satisfaction agents farther east are still looking forward to.

'Cutting for Sign'

"Where is the border?" asks agent T.C. Rasmusson. He will ask the question half a dozen times as he escorts a reporter through the San Ysidro Mountains one July evening. Here, in the mountains surrounding Tecate, Calif., and its sister city by the same name across the border, there is no easy way to tell where one stands. Beyond the corrugated metal wall that runs for three miles west of the Tecate port of entry, there are only the occasional concrete border monuments and landmarks, memorized by the smugglers who traffic in people and drugs, and by the Border Patrol agents whose job it is to keep them out. A ranch there is in Mexico; a tree here in the United States. The landscape looks the same as far as the eye can see. But every night, hundreds of people risk their lives crossing this invisible border that runs through these unforgiving mountains.

Not all of them make it. Some die of heat stroke or hypothermia, unprepared for the hot days or the cold nights. Some drown crossing the Tijuana River. Others are murdered by bandits or abandoned by their "guides" when they can't keep up. Four died in a wildfire earlier this year. Thousands are apprehended by the Border Patrol and returned to Mexico, only to try all over again. The risks are infinite. But still they keep coming.

"The law is black and white," Rasmusson says. "What you see out here is gray." He stops the Bronco he's driving in Cottonwood Canyon and gets out to inspect some footprints in the dusty soil. He can tell by the amount of sand that has filled in the prints they are more than an hour old. He drives further, continually looking for signs of traffic-"cutting for sign" in Border Patrol parlance.

Few agents here believe they will see the day when illegal immigrants are deterred from crossing the border. So long as the rewards vastly outweigh the risks, so long as American business and agriculture seek cheap labor, and so long as the Mexican and Latin American economies cannot provide adequate jobs, the illegal immigrants will continue to come. And the Border Patrol will continue to apprehend them, put them on buses and return them to Mexico. It is a cycle they don't expect to see broken in their lifetime.

"You can't really think about this job too much," says one veteran agent. "Otherwise you'll get too frustrated, it will seem too futile, and you'll just give up."

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