Dangerous Crossings

Two chronically hungry men I'll call Ernesto and Ral live in El Paso in cars, or sometimes alleys. It depends on what's available when they cross illegally from Ciudad Jurez, Mexico, just across the international border. Ernesto peddles roasted pumpkin seed snacks in El Paso bars and restaurants. Ral does construction work. I bought them breakfast once and got the details.Ernesto used to make a decent living teaching karate in Mexico City, but that was before the 1985 earthquake that buried thousands of people under piles of rubble. While Ernesto was helping dig out victims, part of a building fell on him and he was left blind. Bereft of work or disability benefits, he moved to Jurez to survive, and made friends with Ral, who was already there. Eventually life got so hard in Mexico that they started crossing into the United States illegally every day to make a living.Aggressive new border enforcement threw a wrench in that routine. In late 1993, the U.S. Border Patrol initiated Operation Blockade (later renamed Hold the Line), which lined up 400 agents--100 yards apart--on the Rio Grande River in El Paso 24 hours a day. Until the blockade, evading the Border Patrol had been sufficiently easy that anyone with gumption could make it to El Paso almost every day. Immediately afterwards, crossing was next to impossible. After a while, though, Ernesto and Ral figured things out. Now, in the dark before dawn, they travel to the blockade's perimeter in the hilly New Mexico desert beyond El Paso. Ral guides Ernesto like a Seeing Eye dog, and the two hitch rides or catch a bus several miles back to town. The seven-hour trip is too long to make daily, so they do it once a week. Both have homes in Jurez and would much prefer to sleep in their own beds. But instead, Ernesto and Ral spend several days in El Paso working--and several nights homeless.The local Border Patrol knows about people like Ernesto and Ral, and publicly acknowledges that more of them are breaking through Hold the Line than when the operation first started. Border Patrol officials in San Diego, however, have apparently not been so honest. Several congressional panels and the Patrol's parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), are investigating accusations that administrators of the San Diego-area border-sealing project, Operation Gatekeeper, cooked the books to make Gatekeeper look more effective.In a Catch-22, increased border enforcement should logically net more migrants, yet the INS is under pressure to show that the number of people making the crossing is down. Since the immigrant flow is traditionally calculated based on the number of apprehensions of migrants, the agency needs to show fewer arrests. Border Patrol union officials say supervisors ordered thousands of undocumented immigrants back to Mexico without counting them. The union also says Gatekeeper administrators have purged records of complaints by agents overwhelmed in areas the INS claims are under control.These are damning accusations, especially since Operation Gatekeeper is the federal government's latest showcase border-enforcement project. The INS launched the $46 million operation with fanfare in late 1994, shortly before the off-year state and national elections that included Republican Pete Wilson's successful re-election bid for California governor. Reflecting the growing wave of xenophobia throughout the country, Wilson and many other GOP politicians made anti-immigration policy, such as California's Proposition 187, the centerpiece of their campaigns.Anxious Democratic pols responded not by defending immigrant rights, but by toeing the line. They were led by Bill Clinton, who promised to get tough on our southern border. While other government agencies are being trimmed, the Border Patrol's budget has swelled to $585 million--up 80 percent from only four years ago--and the number of authorized Border Patrol agents has increased 27 percent in the last two years. Clinton's 1994 crackdown focused on the border near San Diego, where more undocumented migrants are arrested than at any other place on the U.S.-Mexico frontier. Seven hundred new agents have been assigned to the San Diego sector alone.Operation Gatekeeper agents line up in three layers a half- mile to two miles from the border. They are backed by a 14-mile corrugated steel wall, floodlights, night-vision equipment, helicopters, highway checkpoints and the California National Guard, which occasionally marches in platoon-size formations and routinely conducts surveillance.The consequence of all this force is the "balloon effect." When you squeeze a balloon in one place, it expands in another. The INS is squeezing undocumented immigrants from easy crossing spots into more desolate, difficult areas where they are easier to catch. The pressure has worked to some extent. In the flat, urbanized western end of the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, arrests have declined 40 percent since Operation Gatekeeper began. Conversely, in the remote eastern part of the county, apprehensions have exploded by as much as 1,700 percent.Many people have been pushed from California entirely. In Nogales, Naco, Douglas and Tucson, Ariz., Gatekeeper backup operations have produced arrest rates that top previous levels by as much as 600 percent. Farther east, the New Mexico desert just west of El Paso has seen an elevenfold increase since the early days of Operation Hold the Line.The risk of injuries, even death, has swelled for people pushed into hostile territory. Scalding by day, freezing at night and infested with venomous snakes, eastern San Diego County is so treacherous that the forestry department's local fire-prevention chief hesitates to send his own workers into the area. Last year, five people were found dead in the region, amid the ashes of a forest fire. This summer, two more were discovered, including a woman who collapsed and died after her son went for help. All told, at least 14 Mexicans have perished in similar circumstances in California this year.The balloon effect has also encouraged high-speed car chases in California, like the one that culminated in the notorious Riverside County beating incident in April. Since then, other similar escape attempts have ended in four fatal accidents, leaving at least 10 people dead and 39 injured. Meanwhile, in the Arizona desert, 10 migrants have perished this year. Near El Paso, overland crossing deaths are rare, but drownings in the Rio Grande are endemic.As Ernesto and Ral demonstrate, the redirection of migrants to more difficult crossing spots is not the only reason for swelling arrest numbers. When you squeeze a balloon, you move air to other places; the squeezed place, however, still pushes back. This seems to be what's happening up and down the border. Arrests nationwide are rising: According to early 1996 figures, for instance, INS agents apprehended 25 percent more undocumented immigrants than during the same period a year earlier. All the hot border spots are seeing increases. Even San Diego is up 1 percent since Operation Gatekeeper started.For the INS, the problem has been most irksome in Imperial Beach, Gatekeeper's westernmost sector. Before the book-cooking allegations surfaced, Border Patrol reports were claiming that undocumented migrant arrests in Imperial Beach were down 65 percent this year compared with pre-Gatekeeper days. That was before the July issue of Harper's published an agent's complaint that he and his co-workers were being ordered not to apprehend migrants in Imperial Beach. "Don't catch 'em," they were told, because "if we go over 200 [arrests] in a 24-hour period, the chief gets a call." That call (with accompanying threats) would come from INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, who was getting her calls from Attorney General Janet Reno.Some congressional Republicans accuse the INS of trying to help Bill Clinton's re-election bid by making it look like he is controlling immigration. The irony is that even the most staunchly anti-immigrant Republican president would find it next to impossible to stem the tide across the southern border. Stick more Border Patrol agents on the line and you're bound to catch more people. But according to many demographers, beefed-up enforcement is not the only reason arrests are up. The expansion of minimum-wage jobs in the United States coupled with Mexico's severe economic crisis--set off by the peso devaluation of December 1994--appear to be intensifying the flow of poor migrants.Poverty and bleak economic prospects have always driven Mexicans to El Norte, but the collapse of the Mexican economy has greatly intensified the pressure. The Clinton administration's massive bailout loan package has mainly benefited big investors, corporations and the financial markets. Using the loans as a carrot, Clinton and the IMF forced the Mexican government to implement severe austerity measures that sent the domestic economy into a deep funk, from which it has yet to recover. In 1995, the country's gross domestic product dropped almost 7 percent, the sharpest contraction in six decades. Some 1 million jobs have been lost, leaving 75 percent of Mexican families living under the official poverty line. With NAFTA's ongoing modernization of the countryside, campesinos are being forced off their land and into cities with astronomical unemployment rates. Most people lucky enough to still have jobs earn less than $6 per day.Over breakfast, Ral and Ernesto described migrants who had died trying to make the crossing and shook their heads. "We're not considered human anymore," said Ral. Ernesto blindly aimed his fork, sometimes spearing food and sometimes air. In a fit of despair, the two launched into a fundamentalist recitation about the millennium: the Four Horsemen, the Seven Seals and abstruse numerology from the Book of Revelations. "End time," they said, and I wondered whose figures were more deluded: theirs, or the Border Patrol's?

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