• U.S.

The Unwelcome Mat

5 minute read
S.C. Gwynne/Nogales

If Californians believed they were settling an issue when they approved Proposition 187 by a 59% to 41% vote, they were wrong. The battle has spread to the courts and the marketplace. Last week a federal judge in Los Angeles temporarily blocked the state from implementing most provisions of the measure, which would deny services to illegal aliens, on the grounds that it may violate their civil rights. At the same time, the threat of a grass-roots boycott of California spread across North America, as groups ranging from the World Boxing Council to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists said they would retaliate by taking their business elsewhere.

All the furor over Proposition 187, however, has obscured an anti- immigration campaign that may have just as much impact, but far sooner. Attorney General Janet Reno has decided to try to virtually seal off the 2,076-mile border with Mexico to illegal crossers. The U.S. Border Patrol has long maintained it could accomplish this if given a chance, but the patrol has always been underfunded and understaffed.

Now the agency is getting its chance. The campaign started with successful experiments in the Border Patrol sectors in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego. Operation Hold the Line, which began a year ago in El Paso, has brought a 72% reduction in arrests, which are considered the most accurate bellwether of the number of illegal crossings. In the San Diego area, where half of all illegal immigrants into the U.S. sneak through the jagged canyons and urban alleys, a two-year tightening effort culminating in Operation Gatekeeper in October has reduced the number of arrests 30%. Inspired by these statistics, the Justice Department unveiled a plan to accomplish what many considered unimaginable only a few years ago: reduce the number of illegals crossing the border 90% during the next three years.

Though the timing of Reno’s decision was clearly intended to help California Democrats in the November elections, most of whom opposed Proposition 187, it was more than just a campaign promise. The money is already flowing: $236 million has been allocated to the southwestern border for 1995, an increase of 25% from 1994. An additional 1,010 agents will soon be deployed, bringing the total to more than 5,000. Helicopters, night-vision scopes, ground sensors and computers are being brought in at unprecedented levels. When equipment has not been delivered, because of the glacial government procurement process, Reno has personally borrowed gear from the Pentagon.

Yet, short of building a Chinese wall, some skeptics wonder whether the U.S. can really seal off a border that consists largely of four-strand barbed wire and the Rio Grande, and includes the barren deserts around Yuma, Arizona; the thick evergreen brush near McAllen, Texas; two ocean ports; and several mountain ranges. The Border Patrol insists it can do so, in part because of that very terrain. The vast majority of crossings now take place in and around urban areas. The crackdowns in San Diego and El Paso rely on enhanced ( technology, fences and manpower over short stretches of mostly urban zones, forcing immigrants to choke points in much rougher country. “If we can begin to deal with more crossers in canyons and rugged terrain,” says Tucson, Arizona, sector chief Ronald Dowdy, “then we are playing on home court and by our rules. As the distances they must travel to get to transportation become larger, we become much more effective.”

But illegal crossers are inventive; already there is evidence that they are probing the border for weak points. A surge of new crossings has been observed in places like Campo, California, to the east of San Diego, and Sunland Park, in the western part of El Paso. In Nogales, Arizona, arrests are up 51% from last year. “We’re seeing a lot more folks from Baja California, who normally would cross through San Diego, and people from Chihuahua, who would usually cross in El Paso,” says Nogales border agent F. D. Gunter. To cope with this surge, the Tucson sector is getting 100 new agents, along with night-vision scopes, helicopters, computers and other equipment.

Some of the toughest areas to control are in the brushy landscapes near the Texas border towns of Laredo, Del Rio and McAllen, which have not been promised any additional agents or equipment. “We have not heard about this plan, and to date we have received nothing,” says McAllen border agent Mario Garcia, whose area covers 280 miles of river, 19 counties and 17,000 sq. mi., are all policed by 395 agents.

Another threat to the plan comes from Mexico, which has seemingly few intentions to cooperate. Says Fernando Estrada Samano, a National Action Party deputy: “We will not stop migrant workers from looking for a better quality of life in the U.S.” Social strains are already being felt on the Mexican side of the border. In Tijuana, where much of its floating population of 15,000 migrant workers found itself stranded, petty crime has risen 10% since Operation Gatekeeper began. Thousands of workers who used to commute to jobs in El Paso to work are now without wages and have little hope for future employment.

The larger problem is that tight control over the southwestern U.S. border, along with the potential impact of Proposition 187, creates entirely new categories of problems. It will almost certainly place enormous hardships on the Mexican population, which will in turn create diplomatic strains between two countries working hard to make the North American Free Trade Agreement * succeed. It also stands to devastate agriculture in states like California, which rely on illegal immigrant labor to bring in the harvest. All of which suggests that, even if it is possible to shut down the border with Mexico, reaching that goal may be far from the political slam dunk it seemed to be in the campaign season. While cutting off illegal immigration may save some money in social services, the price will be the loss of a labor pool that the U.S. has long taken for granted.

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