Mary Jo McConahay

The Border Fence Will Wreck the Environment and Destroy Families

On hot summer days I would sit atop the water tank on the west side of the stone cabin ... watching turkey vultures climb invisible thermals, listening to the soft cooing of white-tipped doves, and gazing at the mosaic of greens that rippled into the distance. Something told me that I should swallow every angstrom of this beauty, commit it to memory, and hold it firmly in my heart.
-- Arturo Longoria, Adios to the Brushlands


Exhausted, a party of birders slips down the last few feet of a dry arroyo and collapses onto flat, cool stones near the spot where the water begins. Three sleek kayaks and a lumbering canoe sit beached just beyond reach of the licks of a lazy stream, near the tiny town of Salimeño. "We could secede again," says one of the birders in a tone that sounds only half-joking. He doesn't need to explain, because all present know the history of the short-lived, combative Republic of the Rio Grande (1839 to 1840). On the floor of the limestone arroyo, giant, fossilized oyster shells shine bright and curvy-edged in the sun. When a song comes from the brush, one of the birders automatically identifies it as "green jay," and the others assent without missing a beat in a conversation threaded with anger and frustration.

Up and down the Lower Rio Grande Valley, rebellion is in the air. Residents like the birders, and civic officials, are receiving top-down orders from Washington to accept a border fence many do not want, walling off their river. It will reverse new economic ebullience, opponents say, change their border culture, and bring down the curtain on rare critters of which they are stewards, including some found nowhere else in the world.

In Washington, anti-terror legislation is invoked to convince locals they have no choice.

McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez doesn't buy it. "The law gives them a lot of power, but not total power," he says. Relations with the Border Patrol, historically friendly, are strained because residents feel deliberately left in the dark about fence plans. The secrecy rankles. "We're fencing with ghosts now," says landowner John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association. "Farmers are opposed because we irrigate almost entirely with water pumped from the river, and need access 24-7."

If you are envisioning the fence as a high but simple chain-link affair, think again. First, anyone on the river will tell you a "permeable" fence becomes solid in hours as it catches windblown flotsam and detritus. The law says the Department of Homeland Security must install "at least 2 layers of reinforced fencing," which means clearing a swath some 150 feet wide, locals reckon, to make room for fences, access and maintenance roads. "Think of bulldozing your house," says Sierra Club representative Scott Nicol, who teaches art at South Texas College in McAllen. "Then bulldoze the ones on either side, too, to get an idea of the width needed for the barrier. Then extend that for 700 miles." Nicol and others who live along the border know the fence won't work. They see the undocumented workers who have already braved deserts and jungles and bandits to get this far. "We could have a wall from sea to shining sea, and it wouldn't make a difference," he says. Even DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Fox News in July that the border "is a much more complicated problem than putting up a fence, which someone can climb over with a ladder or tunnel under with a shovel."

Tensions grew in May when a government map of the proposed fence emerged at a community meeting. The map shows the wall cutting through a protected wildlife corridor, national refuges, and the University of Texas Brownsville-Texas Southmost College campus (leaving part on the "Mexican" side). The fence slices off public access to historic sites and runs along flood-control levees already in need of repair for lack of funds. (Funds are available, one landowner offers dryly, "at $3 million a mile to build a fence.") There is no way now to calculate exactly how much U.S. territory will become inaccessible because of the fence. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley alone, the course of the river is one of infinite curves, loops and omegas. A physical barrier that runs for miles must be relatively straight, so in the end significant acreage will be left on the far side of any "border" wall. Is that land effectively ceded to Mexico? Will it become a no-man's-land? A wall on just one levee in Mission would throw to the far side two restaurants and at least two homes. "I wouldn't know what country I lived in," one owner says. The wall would cut off boat docks, a boys' summer camp, and a small park with picnic tables. It would block access to the La Lomita Mission, after which the town is named. The 19th century wooden chapel was a stop on the historic Oblate Fathers Trail, a small jewel of a place where the faithful leave burning candles at a white altar and the local community is known to pray for rain when it does not come.

With other mayors, Cortez has met with Chertoff in Washington and Laredo, to no avail. The mayors are not indifferent to national security, but believe a fence is not a solution. Texas border congressmen are united against the fence, but Texas' two Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, supported it. Gov. Rick Perry called it "divisive" but has yet to lodge a formal protest to Washington as opponents want. As Cortez puts it, after months of traveling and talking to all the right people, feeling ignored and isolated, border leaders sense the political path is petering out.

DHS defends itself. "We are actively consulting with state and local officials and landowners to decide where it should be," says spokesperson Laura Heehner in Washington. Local officials say no consultation has taken place. Heehner repeats Chertoff's caution that communities would have "no veto," that the "safety and security of the homeland is our primary mission." The leaked map is only "a first iteration based on Border Patrol assessment of where (the wall) should be," says spokesperson Brad Benson at Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington. Other versions will follow, he says, in consultation with the public, probably after the fiscal year ends in September.

In the Valley, residents are not waiting. "The worst thing we can do is nothing," Cortez says. Lawyers are being consulted. Environmental activists are enlisting help from national organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, which has said it will join legal action if locals undertake it. Imaginative public demonstrations -- 100 canoes and kayaks appeared in one protest flotilla -- draw crowds. The Texas Border Coalition, an influential group founded in 1998 to give border mayors, county judges, and communities a collective voice, has hired ViaNovo, an Austin consultancy, to "get out the story of our community about the wall, but also about the need for comprehensive immigration reform," says TBC member Mike Allen. "If Saudi Arabia and Israel can hire consulting groups to tell their story, so can we -- it hasn't been fairly heard in middle America or in Congress." ViaNovo's partners include Matthew Dowd, chief campaign strategist for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, when he was responsible for targeting and placing $150 million in ads. Tucker Eskew, Bush's spokesman in Palm Beach during the 2000 election recount and later the president's Director of Global Communications, is also a partner.

Unlike San Diego and Yuma, where failed resistance to the wall was carried on by a small group of environmental organizations, for an environmental purpose only, here it's in the hands of a broad spectrum that includes ranchers, civic and business figures, a network of local environmental activists, and long-time cross-border families who consider the fence an insult to relatives and friends. "We're coming at them from various directions, each in our own way," says McClung, who is also an avid birder. Efforts are complementary, but not necessarily coordinated.

What's happening in the Valley is about more than just a fence. By resisting, residents are challenging the kind of post-9/11 federal behavior that is marked by fear, and occasionally is devoid of common sense.

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandates physical barriers along 700 miles of the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border to stop terrorists and illegal immigrants. Three hundred seventy miles are set to be completed by December 2008, including 125 to 150 miles in Texas. An extraordinary aspect of another federal law that has gone largely unnoted lets Chertoff, in the name of national security, override any other statute to carry out this mandate. No judicial review of Chertoff's decisions is permitted, though a claimant may allege a constitutional violation, a route lawyers say has yet to be tried.

This phenomenal power, granted in the emotional fog generated by the specter of terrorism, is contained in the Real ID Act, a rider to an Iraq war funding bill passed in 2005. The Congressional Research Service has said the law appears to be unprecedented: It gives a political appointee -- Chertoff -- "sole discretion" to ignore requirements of other federal laws. This section of Real ID passed quietly, as if Congress were unaware of its consequences, or cowering. When a coalition of environmental groups attempted to stop the fence in a delicate estuary near San Diego, Chertoff waived not only the National Environmental Policy Act, sometimes called the nation's environmental Magna Carta, but the National Historic Preservation Act, the Clean Water Act, National Wildlife Refuge Act, the Federal Water Pollution Act, and other statutes. Near San Diego, a wall made of surplus World War II metal landing mats now reaches through the wetland into the Pacific like a giant cleaver.

Floor debate around Real ID implied the secretary's special power would be used only in San Diego. But the letter of the law does not restrict its application to San Diego, and there is no time limit on it. After San Diego, Chertoff waived laws near Yuma, too.

Lower Rio Grande Valley leaders argue that the river, a natural barrier, makes a fence less necessary. They may have another argument as well: Under treaties between Mexico and the United States, the river is an international boundary under the aegis of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which holds the right of way on nearby levees where the fence is likely to go. Without the commission's permission, neither side may erect an obstruction that changes the flow or floodway of the river, or causes erosion, because that in effect is changing a national boundary. Mexico, on record against the wall, is an equal partner in the commission with the United States. Noted Houston environmental lawyer and educator Jim Blackburn recently told a McAllen meeting called by the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that while Chertoff can waive national laws, he may not waive treaty obligations.

Blackburn also said accords in the North American Free Trade Agreement obligate the United States, Canada, and Mexico to observe environmental laws and strengthen their enforcement. Ironically, these NAFTA provisions were initially aimed at Mexico, not the United States, which is the one now suspending environmental laws to build the fence. Should Chertoff waive national laws again, notice will appear in the Federal Register, and objections must be filed within 60 days. Individuals in the Valley and allies in Washington are watching the register closely. A Customs and Border Protection spokesman says progress on the Valley fence is likely to accelerate after October 1, when fencing elsewhere is required to be complete. Many border tracts belong to private ranchers and farmers, who must grant permission for any physical barrier on their property, but landowners are among the most vocal opponents of the fence. Recently, Chertoff said DHS "can't rule out" invoking eminent domain, a process in which the government may seize private land after providing compensation, even if the owner is unwilling to sell. The political cost of doing so could be high. In these parts, says McClung, eminent domain is a "profoundly offensive" concept. His voice is fuming, but McClung speaks carefully. "There's an abhorrence of condemnation, an emotional problem with it," he says.

"It's a whole lot bigger than the fence," says Texas Border Coalition member Allen. "This has become the United States of paranoia. And the fence is just a symbol of Congress' failure to put anything together for comprehensive immigration reform, which is the only way to stop illegal immigration, not a fence that stops someone for two or three minutes until they use wire cutters or a ladder."

Allen, who helped shepherd McAllen's growth as CEO of the McAllen Development Corp. for 19 years, remains a leader among those who say the fence is bad for business. This area is one of the most deeply integrated with Mexico and has boomed since NAFTA became law. Since 1996, the McAllen economy has grown at an average of 6 to 7 percent annually. McAllen -- not Houston, New York, or Los Angeles -- is the No. 1 shopping destination for Mexicans, according to Visa receipts. These Lower Rio Grande counties still register among the poorest in the nation, but McAllen is pulling nearby communities along. A fence in the midst of this effervescence would be like suddenly stationing tanks on the border, says Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. "It messes up the system by doing things like proposing a wall."

Ninety percent of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is Hispanic, often from families who settled here long before Anglos. Fifty-four per cent of McAllen's population has relatives on the other side of the river. A local saying goes: "The Valley's population is 3 million. One million on this side." Virtually everyone is bilingual. Stand on the bluff in Roma, or on the landing of the hand-cranked ferry at Los Ebanos, or on the lawn of the UT Brownsville-Texas Southmost campus, and look over at what rises like a physical and cultural mirror on the Mexican side of la linea. The river could be a stream running through a single town.

This is hard to explain to the rest of the country, and to Congress. Texas, Ahlenius notes, is already a majority-minority state, but in parts of middle America the number of Hispanics is beginning to grow and change communities. "There's a mentality of scarcity in the rest of the country, but an attitude of abundance here," he says. "Opportunities, job growth. Here you can gain market share without having to take it from someone else." Ahlenius sits at a wide desk with miniature Civil War soldiers deployed behind him -- gifts from staff. He pauses.

"I hope deep down it's not a race issue," he says. "But it is. We're scared of America becoming brown."

Across the hall, Nancy Millar, director of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau, says, "These are quasi-members of our community. People here look the same as those from across the border, and everyone speaks Spanish. Erecting a wall is as good as erecting a 'not welcome' billboard." Millar's research shows the average visiting Mexican family stays four nights in the Valley and spends $5,300.

She grabs a pair of binoculars from a desk drawer and trains it out the third-floor window. "Look, a peregrine falcon," Millar says with excitement. Like many residents of this neotropical flood plain, where 513 of the continental United States' 730 bird species are found and 330 of some 500 kinds of butterflies, she keeps binoculars at hand. The large falcon is nesting in the cozy curve of a giant "C" on an upper floor of a Citibank building a few blocks away.

It's not just civic leaders, landowners, and nature lovers who oppose the fence. Nineteen-year old Sally Hart grew up among the tables of Mission's Riverside Club, a place of weekend barbecues, dancing, community birthday parties, live-music Friday nights, and "home cooking" on the river. Her father, Captain Johnny, has a 38-passenger sightseeing pontoon boat moored outside. Mother Jennifer says they built the place themselves over 25 years of "blood, sweat, and tears." Sally has her own reasons for not wanting a fence.

"It's personal to me," she says, looking over the wooden tables and hanging plants in the patio. "I want this to be a family thing forever." A junior at Texas A&M, she plans to help her folks run the place and eventually take it over. A fence would run between the club (they live on the lot, too) and the road. Not good for business. "I don't like to think of it," she says, looking confused. Memories of a safe and joyous lifetime on the river don't match perceptions of the place as a front line in the anti-terror war. A few days earlier, a Border Patrol slide show about the fence in Weslaco began with the disturbing, iconic image of the twin towers in flames. Take-home leaflets bear the same picture. Sally recently asked her mother to explain the concept of eminent domain.

"To think it could be taken away, by the government …" Sally says.

Experts like Martin Hagne, a nationally renowned birder and Executive Director of the Nature Valley Center in Weslaco, say the fence will decimate species in a biological area unique in the country. And disappearing wildlife tends to have a ripple effect. "When something is taken out of the equation other things are affected, habitat changes, other things will disappear and we don't know what," says Hagne. "Things are connected."

Down on the arroyo, late in the day, the birders push their boats onto still water that leads quickly into the foaming rio where the river's limestone skeleton emerges just enough above the surface to be a hazard, forcing the rowers to keep their eyes on the water. The Rio Grande twists wild and clear from Falcon Dam, shared by the United States and Mexico. Cliffs tower, and the water goes calm again. Almost hidden, an elongated Altamira oriole nest sways suspended from a branch in a sugar hackberry tree. The nest is weathered, dark and limp from last season. Lifting gently in the breeze, it looks like an oriental lantern whose flame has gone out. From the right bank, a great blue heron breaks across the water, impressive in size and volume. A white heron stands unmindful in the reeds. On the edge of a midstream island, a spotted sandpiper pecks staccato-like, feeding on insects. Then, a surprise: A bronzed cowbird, fat and feathery, is propelling its body straight up and down, over and over, a mating dance in a mesquite tree for a lady bird who sits quietly on the same branch. Montezuma bald cypress, with multiple spreading roots, ebony, and other trees crowd the shore, making it look dark and cool.

Eleven distinct biotic communities are found along the 170 miles of Valley from Falcon Dam to the mouth of the river. The variety of habitats means a variety of plants (1,200 species) and animal life, making this the most diverse biological locale in the United States. The Atlantic, Central and Eastern bird migration routes converge here, which means you can see birds from remote corners of the continent on their way north or south. And this is the northernmost point reached by some southern birds. Add to that birds found here and nowhere else, and you have one of the most productive bird-watching places in the world.

The tall, riparian forest along the river is where birds like the groove-billed ani, which have flown hundreds of miles, land and rest. Local chambers of commerce jointly produce brochures aimed at international travelers ("Drive on the right") and support festivals and observation centers that draw thousands in the autumn and spring. Wildlife tourism brings $150 million annually, and jobs, to the Valley. A fence could empty the goldmine.

Without the forest, the gray hawk, for instance, will disappear from here. The wide clearing for a physical barrier means certain migratory birds that stop to rest and gain strength will find no food. Many will weaken and die, or fly off and drop as they try to continue their journeys without nourishment.

By the 1970s, 95 percent of original Valley brushland and forest had been cut down, a process local author Arturo Longoria traces feelingly. In refuges established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, what's left is protected, and more wild space is slowly growing back as land is committed to butterfly parks and birding centers in Valley towns, painstakingly revegetated, often by volunteers. A protected corridor is being created for animals so they can thrive and reproduce. Millions of acres are protected on the Mexican side, and the wildlife department makes plans jointly with the Mexicans, because plants and animals don't recognize borders. The corridor is seen as one, binational.

Spotted ocelots, the Valley's sleek, emblematic, furtive animals, which once roamed over Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama, are now endangered. In the United States they are found only here. There are probably fewer than 100 left. Females make dens for their kittens -- one or two a year -- in brush like wild hackberry and Texas persimmon; when they are about a year old, the young cats disperse, especially the males, who must roam contiguous wild land for food and protection, claiming their own territory to survive. Naturalists like Hagne say fragmenting the Valley habitat with a fence would doom any comeback of the ocelots, and cripple, probably fatally, the long, slender jaguarundi, too, along with 20 other endangered species.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife has spent $100 million in the last 20 years to acquire refuge land and now protects 90,000 acres, much of it open to visitors. Local residents are deeply invested; they have raised money for land acquisition, too. The aim is a corridor of 134,000 acres. At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge near Alamo, Public Outreach Specialist Nancy Brown says, "For 20 years this has been billed as a wildlife corridor, a place where animals might be unencumbered." With a fence, she says, "You go counter to the very reason for which it was established."

This is the way Joel Hernandez, a biologist with Pro-Natura, a non-governmental organization that oversees protected areas on the Mexican side of the river, sees the coming of a fence: "Within six months or a year, you'll begin to see animal life diminishing. You'll see more corpses on the roads. In three years, the big animals will be fairly gone. If they don't die because they can't eat, don't have their own territory, they'll die from people who shoot them in the open. You'll just stop seeing them, seeing certain things. Birds. The place will be more quiet."

On the river, the birding party -- a rancher, two naturalists, and a local DHS employee -- spot a red-billed pigeon on a high branch. For two of them, this is a "life bird" event, the term for the first time a particular bird is sighted. In all of the United States, the red-billed pigeon, Muscovy duck, and brown jay are found only within this couple of miles. These birds would not die because of a fence, but you would have to go to another country -- the Mexican side -- to see them.

The Immigrant Graveyards of South Texas

At the Side Door Café in Falfurrias, Texas, body counts enter conversations as naturally as the price of feed, or the cost of repairing torn fences. "I removed 11 bodies last year from my ranch, 12 the year before," said prominent local landowner Presnall Cage. "I found four so far this year." Sometimes, Cage said, he has taken survivors to a hospital; mostly, however, time and the sun have done their jobs, and it is too late.

As increased U.S. border security closes certain routes, undocumented migrants continue to come but squeeze onto fewer, more dangerous and isolated pathways to America's interior. One of these is the network of trails that bypasses the last Border Patrol checkpoint traveling north on Hwy. 281, in Brooks County. That change is having a dramatic ripple effect on the county (total pop: 7,685), and on people who have lived here for generations.

For one thing, the dead are breaking the budget. County officials earmarked $16,000 in fiscal 2007 for handling deceased indigents. That category includes the remains of undocumented Mexicans and other would-be migrants found within county lines. But by May, Brooks County had already spent $34,195 on autopsies and burials, "and we're just heading into the hot months now," said County Judge Raul Ramirez. It's also rattlesnake mating season, noted the judge, who grew up on the King Ranch. It's the time when the serpents move around most, biting the unwary and those who walk in grass and sand without high boots.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm glad to do this. I'd spend $120,000 if I had to because it's the right thing to do," Ramirez said in his modest office on Allen Street in Falfurrias (population 5,020), the county seat. "But we could be helping more of our own." About a third of Brooks residents live below the poverty line; average household income is $21,000; jobs are just plain scarce.

Pictures of the dead are kept discreetly in certain places in this town, a collective album that tells an important part of what Brooks County -- which used to be better known for oil, watermelon, and a Halliburton facility -- has become in the last couple of years: a grave for the weak or unlucky. The local Minuteman-type militia, for instance, has a collection of matted 11x14's. Some are artful: a skull amid crawling vines, a kind of meditation; a young man's figure with legs softly bent, his head thrown back against a bush with the arc of a ballet dancer's neck -- only an accompanying close-up of the winsome face, mouth open and vacant eyes, speaks death. Some remains are partially clothed. There is a condition that comes with too much sun: judgment wanes, and the affected person mistakenly believes stripping will assuage the heat inside. Many fallen dead from dehydration are found with jugs of water lying nearby; the inexperienced trekker -- especially when lost -- will save water instead of sipping it periodically, until a line is crossed in the brain and the person no longer feels thirst even as he is expiring from it. Among the pictures are corpses bloated so grievously they look ready to pop. The body of one young woman is not badly swollen, lying with face and torso intact, but her legs have been gnawed down to the long bones by a feral pig.

Luis M. Lopez Moreno, Mexico's consul in McAllen, said there are other changes that may add to the death toll. Since the border has become so difficult to cross, working men who moved back and forth annually are now stuck in the north, and family members unaccustomed to the trek are "trying to reunite" by traveling to the States. Women, arguably less able to withstand the journey, sometimes caring for children, are represented more in the migrant stream. Young migrants, the majority of those who come, are likely to be better educated and more urban now, less aware of how to manage themselves under extreme conditions.

"Hank," a guide for high-end hunters who doesn't want his real name used, thinks he saves lives. Unobtrusively, he turns hunters' blinds away from nearby trails so the "illegals" don't get shot by accident. This is also an attempt "to protect the psychological state of the hunters." They may be men fearless in high finance and politics -- Washington figures including both Bush presidents have hunted here, with Air Force One parked incongruously on the county airstrip. And the gentlemen may have the confidence big wallets can bring, paying well over $1,000 a day to stalk deer, spring turkey, quail (reportedly Bush One's favorite), wild pig, and imported exotic animals, and to stay at lodges with gourmet meals, bars, and wireless. Surprised in the wild by local human traffic, however, they can quake.

"Hunters, they get scared and panic, especially if it's something like a group of 30 coming through," Hank explained. "The illegals got so bad last year we had to buy two-way radios." Hunters can use the radios to call their guides for help. Hank's job has changed in other ways, too. "Before there was downtime to be in the truck, kick back, park in a pasture, and wait for the hunters." No more. "We stay within 100 yards."

Hank once discovered a man lying on his back, one hand on his forehead, knee up, as if he were resting. He had been cooked in place. Another body fallen in the middle of a trail had a path worn around it, where migrants stepped to avoid the corpse. Last Thanksgiving, he found one with "still a little meat on the head, but the arms and legs were detached, pretty much just bones, lying nearby."

At home, Hank reaches into the bed of his pick-up and pulls out a black backpack like the ones he finds "most every day." Inside are dirty clothes, a comb, deodorant, a razor, mirror, a pair of tweezers. It's typical of a pack left behind as a migrant emerges at a highway pick-up point, ready to blend in to America. Inside the house with his wife and two small children, Hank displays a silver-handled .380, which he started carrying only recently for protection, after 14 years on a job he used to love. Coyotes, those who guide the migrants for high fees, are vicious, he says. That's a good reason for not wanting to use his real name. They're not just from Mexico but are homegrown too, some from right here in town. But that's nothing compared to gang members he began to see two years ago. MS-13, he said, tattooed from head to toe and skinheads. Unlike other illegals, "they never talk to you." Hank never expected to see the kinds of things he sees now, and reluctantly plans to move on to another job someday, although he would like to spend a few more years at this one. "If I can last," he said.

Brooks County is some 70 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The checkpoint here tallies more interceptions and drug confiscations than any other in the nation. Migrants are either dumped just south of the checkpoint by coyotes, or they reach Brooks after walking all the way from la linea, which takes about 60 hours. They enter the ranches and desert stretches, avoiding the checkpoint until hours later - ideally for them - they reach highway pick-up spots around the town of Falfurrias or nearby ranches. The local Minuteman-type group calls one path west of 281 the Ho Chi Minh Trail because it's so heavily traveled. Other trails traverse hot sands, or in winter are mercilessly cold and wet. (One man found dead in a barn on Christmas Eve had tried to use feed sacks to keep warm.) The unfit, those held back by children, the old, and anyone else who can't keep up the brisk pace, are at risk. Coyotes don't wait. A kind of frontier law forbids those lost and left behind from attaching themselves to another coyote's group. This stark and stunning landscape, this once-welcoming town far from where immigration laws are made, is where the reality of U.S. immigration policy, or lack of policy, plays out darkly, in a way almost invisible to the outside world.

"We haven't got any input in policy," said Judge Ramirez. "The problem is here but you don't look here. How many politicians come here?"

"Washington, D.C., and even Austin don't have any idea what goes on," said Brooks County Sheriff Balde Lozano. "Worst is the deaths. We get there and sometimes they've been dead minutes, sometimes months. Some I'm sure are never found."

Lozano's office adjoins a parking lot where hundreds of confiscated cars from smugglers wait to be sold at auction. There are flashy sports models, family sedans, beat-up vans, new pick-ups. Some are painted with phony company logos. "It's gotten worse, that's for sure," said the sheriff. "There were always people walking. Now more vehicles are carrying people. There's more money in aliens than drugs now." The seized vehicles are Sheriff Lozano's source of funds to pay for night vision binoculars ($4,000 a pair) and a new jail. They also buy patrol cars that chase coyotes after "bailouts," the drop-offs and pick-ups that become frenzied and perilous when drivers realize they've been spotted, and migrants jump and scatter. But Lozano says the band of counties like Brooks well north of the border is "a haven for illegals" and deserves attention from those in Austin doling out funds for border enforcement.

"They don't know what we do here, how many vehicles we seize," said the sheriff. He refers indirectly to Operation Linebacker, Gov. Rick Perry's border security program created by the Texas Border Sheriffs' Coalition, which last year distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to each of the coalition's 16 member departments. But nothing came to counties like Brooks. "It's out of hand. They may be the linebacker but we're the receiver," said Lozano. "What about the border 100 miles inside?"

Police Chief Eden Garcia put it this way: "We should be included because the brunt of the force is coming through our communities. They're being housed in our communities and you better bet the chases are dangerous." (Both police and sheriff's departments have a policy of no pursuit. Spooked coyotes speed anyway.) The Falfurrias Police Department has its own lot for seized vehicles; last year they brought in $125,746. "Backpackers" is the name for small-time runners who go around the checkpoint carrying dope, "marijuana and coke, nickel and dime stuff," said Chief Garcia. But for the police too the big issue has become human traffic, because more who want to make a buck are turning to it. "We're not talking about drugs any more. Every car we stop is immigrants. It just pays more."

Lourdes Treviño-Cantu still calls them "travelers." Treviño is a descendant of Ramon de la Garza himself, one of the county's earliest settlers, who came in the day when tracts here were still granted by Mexico and Spain. Customarily, when passing migrants asked for food, Treviño's mother would slip inside the house, make a stack of tortillas, and take them out to the hungry travelers. But things have recently changed. "If it was the immigrants of old there'd be no fear; you'd live and let live. If they wanted to improve their lives that's fine. Before, the travelers came alone or with one or two of their family, and they were humble, polite. Now they come in packs. They're desperate, bold. A lot of them are pretty well dressed, and everyone seems to want to go to Houston. It's a completely different element."

Analysts and townspeople agree the vast majority of migrants are Mexicans who are very poor, or slightly less than poor and looking for a better job, or attempting to reach family. According to Sheriff Lozano, however, the first identified MS-13 gang member among the migrants was caught in Brooks County. Coyotes often have criminal records. Lourdes Treviño's extended family is more cautious now on the homestead, she said. A sister is constructing a fence around her house perimeter, a first for them.

Small habits, the kind that make up the comforting weave of a life one knows, are changing. Corina Molina, the county auditor, used to come out to the driveway in the mornings and start her engine while she returned inside to gather up a child, or exchanged pleasantries with neighbors doing the same thing. Since an undocumented migrant under pursuit grabbed one of the running cars and took off, the women of the neighborhood dropped the custom. Another county employee, Katy Garza, said she had witnessed a police action that very morning at one of the safe houses used by smugglers to keep migrants overnight. "I guess I'll be having to lock doors now," said Garza. "I have a granddaughter who plays out front - maybe that will have to change too."

Two women professionals in their fifties did not want their names used because -- like "Hank" -- they feared retribution from local coyotes if they spoke to a reporter. Locals who collaborate with the trafficking network are few, but "it's a small town," neighbors say, and some do not want to cross others they grew up with, or recognize on the street. "I thought with the National Guard on the border it would be okay, but the number [of migrants] is growing, and now I won't stay home alone," said one, an accountant whose home is in a rural area. She had her refrigerator raided, and shampoo swiped, but no jewelry or money. A few weeks back young women emerged from the brush and approached her husband, a backhoe operator, begging rides to Houston. Returning late from a party with office companions, all women, the accountant said she "realized something else new."

"Nobody wanted to go out and open the gate alone," she said.

The other woman said she recently answered the call of a man standing outside with a Bible, asking for food. "When I turned around 20 people with him came out of the woods," she said. "My life's changed. I don't want to get raped. I'm afraid."

Ninety-two percent of Brooks County's population is Hispanic, and even most blue-eyed Anglos are bilingual from the time they are toddlers. It's a culture that used to feel more connected to the immigrants coming through, documented or not, or at least not feel alien to them, because as Police Chief Garcia put it, "A lot of our families came the same route." But the greater number traversing the county now and the mischief this does to property, and a suspected criminal element that has slipped in among them, is straining that culture.

Presnall Cage grew up on the family ranch, 46,000 acres of it. "We had them come through for years, agricultural workers, only men," he said. "They hailed you and asked, 'Do you have work or food?' They walked, all the way from Mexico, singly, or maybe in twos, and they knew where the cowboy camps were, where they could pick up some coffee or a meal. Six months later we'd see them walking back, going home to join their families." Today big groups pass through the ranch, he said, and the guide has a cell phone and GPS. Cage spends more than $50,000 a year to repair property damage caused by the migrants, who bend or cut fences, break pipelines to get water, and leave gates open, which means cattle stray or get mixed up. His cowboys -- and this isn't the job they signed up for -- go out Fridays on litter patrol, collecting hundreds of pounds of plastic bags, jugs, backpacks, and other detritus. Cage thinks back to the old days, before the recent immigrant surge, and looks thoughtful. "We never had a body, all those years."

One bright afternoon Dr. Michael Vickers, veterinarian by profession and founder of the four-year-old Texas Border Volunteers, a civilian group, tears across two lanes of oncoming traffic and skids into the sandy drag just short of a ranch fence. He had spotted a black Suburban with darkened windows pulling away, the kind a coyote might drive. "There's 12 sets of tracks here," Vickers said with the eye of a lifelong outdoorsman. We're a mile south of the tower that marks the Falfurrias checkpoint. He calls some Volunteers to watch for "the perps" at the other end of the fence line, miles away. It's full sunlight. "They're brazen," Vickers said. He blames unscrupulous employers, the U.S. and Mexican governments, and the vile coyotes most for the mess, but he doesn't tolerate migrants who came to America illegally.

Along the highway, ranch fences bend where migrants climbed over them or crept underneath. T-posts slant at crazy angles, markers for human traffic. At one spot a 10-foot stretch of fence curves to the ground, clearly not a crossing for only one or two people. "That's a horde," Vickers says. We turn onto a caliche road, beach buff in the glare and throat-scratching powdery, traveling deep into Vickers's own ranch. Four whitetail does raise their heads. We travel the petroleum pipeline, one likely path. He says to keep an eye on the bush line too, because the aliens hug it. "Once they get into that heavy canopy it's hard to see them." Like some other ranchers, Vickers has installed a faucet near a windmill and painted it blue to make it easier for trespassers to find and drink from easily. Partly it's a humanitarian gesture, partly an economic one. Thirsty people break the floats and water runs out, burning a holding tank's submersible pump. Repair cost: $2,500.

The Texas Border Volunteers, most of them armed, track and surround migrants and coyotes. They're better equipped than local lawmen, and partly funded by ranchers, they say. Their stated aim is to communicate the location of illegals for authorities, "to report intel to the Border Patrol." They reckon 1,000 people come through daily, a number used by other sources, and only some are captured by the undermanned agents. "What gets me is their total disregard for our property, for state and federal laws," Vickers said of the "aliens." "I don't blame them for wanting to come, but do it legally. I'm mad. They're stealing our country."

Mike Vickers is well regarded locally, with a clinic and membership on a statewide animal health commission. He has some national fame, too: It was Vickers who originally isolated the "Ames" strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001. His 200 Volunteers come from across Texas and beyond, and include former law enforcement and military personnel. Especially at night, and particularly during a full moon, they fan out on horses, in white trucks and camouflage-painted ATVs, to operate on private property with landowners' permission. His Falfurrias ranch is in the "pick-up zone," off Hwy. 281 north of the Border Patrol station. In September an unclothed woman was found dead on his fence line. Some women leave groups to avoid assault, he said, and just don't make it to safety. Vickers' wife Linda once whipped out her Browning .380 to pin down a Brazilian migrant following her from the cabana to her house. "You're hosed if they have bad intentions," she said. "So you've got to make a decision about who they are within 20 feet even if you're armed." Once, said the couple, their dog appeared carrying a human skull.

Sheriff Lozano said that for civilians to surround migrants might be detaining them against their will, which could be against the law, "but no one has complained about it." Vickers admits the Volunteers dressed in camouflage appear like enforcement authorities, and the presence of the dogs they take with them is intimidating. But the aliens are technically free to keep walking, and if they don't know that, well, too bad. The Border Patrol says it doesn't encourage private citizens to do its job, which is dangerous.

But the Volunteers claim they disrupt coyotes' deliveries of human beings, save lives by finding the lost and straggling, and are on the spot to receive anyone who wants to "surrender" because they can't go any farther. Most of all, the Volunteers want the feeling they are doing something about uninvited newcomers.

Near 9 p.m. the operation begins. Cell phones off. Earpieces fixed. Radios clipped to belts. Scouts leave. Others deploy. The equipment in the vehicle in which I ride is hand-held. Night vision goggles make the panorama green and bright; every object is clear, but green. We overhear communications between Volunteers with handles "Cap" and "Rocky," and the driver reports our own concealed position to base. The Volunteers have 500 GPS points in the area as references; response can be quick. The thermal imaging equipment sees through the dark too, the tree line clear, mesquite feathery. It's a matter of looking for movement -- people lying flat can't be picked out among warm stones. Standing flush against a trunk, they're invisible. Thermal tracking makes the surrounding world not green but black and white -- whatever holds heat gives off a glow, so you can follow the very roots of trees, gnarled and continuous in the cool ground. Far off a Border Patrol helicopter drops a spotlight on the ground, the shaft faint at this distance. Close by, tree trunks look eerie because they are white. They look like winter, or like birches instead of oak, or dead. It takes time to tell the difference between a rabbit and a hunched figure that might be a man. It's magical in a way, the new eyes, the tangle of glowing lines and curves that transform themselves into deer with antlers looking soft, lolling in the sage. Catching moonlight.

But that's not what the Volunteers come for. Once you make out what you are seeing, and it's not a migrant moving toward his destination, unaware he's being watched, the idea is to keep scanning, keep looking....

In McAllen, Consul Lopez Moreno says the Mexican government supports a temporary worker program of some kind because it revives a system that worked well until the big U.S. immigration reforms of 1986 and 1996. "This was a revolving door. The United States opened or closed it as it needed," said Lopez. "Breaking the cycle is what has caused the problem." That "circularity" -- when workers went back and forth more easily between labor in the States and family in Mexico -- worked for both countries, he said. The United States needs workers. Mexicans need work. "But this way they're candidates for death," he said.

One-third of the consul's staff works in the Protection Department, which handles searches for those reported missing by families in Mexico, and repatriation of the deceased. It's a job that takes a daily toll, and McAllen is classified for diplomatic staff as a hardship post. José Luís Diaz Mirón Hinojosa, who goes to the field when remains are found, now attends 40 to 50 cases a year. "I can give certainty to people," Diaz says, returning the bodies of the missing. At least the dead from Brooks County are easier to identify than some -- about 80 percent can be sent home; around the Rio Grande the percentage is fewer, because remains deteriorate faster in the river.

The operation for matching data about the missing with data about the unidentified dead takes place in a small room at the consulate. One afternoon a dedicated HP computer has the words "mujer Falfurrias" fixed on the screen. It refers to identifiers of a dead woman: where she was found, the shape of her face, her mouth, her eyes. It's a public access system. Mexicans can check it, and perhaps match it to someone whose phone calls have stopped, or who have otherwise disappeared. A family can also initiate a search by filling out a form online and sending pictures, often a school or party photo.

Staff in McAllen photograph clothes of the unidentified deceased, faces, belongings, and the body itself, to help the family. "We try to be sensitive to the people," said Vice-Consul Sandra Mendoza. She may call a community telephone in a village, for instance, to contact a family of someone found dead, whose characteristics match someone who has been reported missing. She will instruct a family member to go to the Foreign Affairs Secretariat's computer in a nearby city to view the information or picture. Don't send a father or mother, she will caution. Mendoza shows me a photo of a cadaver just taken from the river. Young male. Green eyelids. Blackened lips. A mouth held open to show teeth, teeth that never saw braces. "We won't show them this kind of picture," Mendoza says quietly. "We'll show them first the pink comb he was carrying, and the label on his shirt." Identified, the body is placed in a pine coffin nailed shut "so relatives remember him as he was." Mexico City covers expenses for travel, and the family returns with the coffin to its village or town, in a truck or by bus or in a van, all together.

Hair, if available, is taken from remains that cannot be identified and stored in a repository at Baylor University for future DNA analysis, in hopes the deceased may someday have a name. "We can't leave Mexicans dead, without care," said Lopez. "If an American dies in Afghanistan the U.S. government is going to make sure they get back. We do the same thing with our own."

Often it's coyotes that lead lawmen to the dead. They call the sheriff or police. Once a coyote provided a map to the consul. Why coyotes? Before the mid-1980s, said Lopez, for migrants without documents "coyotes were not a ubiquitous factor, but now you need an organization." Paths have become less direct, trickier, sometimes requiring alternatives, things smugglers would know. If a coyote arrives at a destination without his human delivery, however, relatives or whoever else paid for the trip (about $3,000 for Mexicans, up to $25,000 for Chinese) demand to know why. By communicating with the lawmen the body is likely to be found, which saves the coyote from reprisals.

When Falfurrias Justice of the Peace Loretta G. Cabrera answers the office phone and hears "Code 500," she leaves for home, where a field set of boots, jeans, and raincoat are "always ready." At the site she methodically notes the time and distance from the highway. Clothing. If the body is intact, paramedics and the Mexican Consulate are called. The funeral home field director helps collect remains if they are scattered. "Sometimes identification is not difficult," says Cabrera. "When there are two ladies traveling together, one stays when the other dies; when an uncle dies a nephew stays; when one brother dies the other stays." Sometimes, according to the consulate, phone numbers have been written on an arm, or even tattooed, either a premonition or as preparation for a journey whose risks are understood. The body goes to Corpus Christi, where the coroner performs an autopsy, and fills out a death certificate that invariably lists the cause of death as exposure. Then it goes to the funeral home. The mortuary charges the county a low flat fee, a little extra if the work requires a disaster bag (thick, black, with a firmly closing zipper, used when remains are not intact). "You walk out at the end of the day and don't think about it," said Cabrera, a small woman. "The Lord gives you strength. Someone has to do it."

This routine of logging the dead repeated itself 56 times in Brooks County last year. (Only 20 persons died in the county apart from migrants, for a county total of 76.) In total, the Border Patrol recorded 453 border deaths including 187 in Texas and New Mexico. (New Mexico is included in the Border Patrol's El Paso sector.) A General Accounting Office report last summer said recorded border deaths have doubled since 1995. It also said the Border Patrol initiative to collect data may be resulting in an undercount. No one knows, of course, how many die without leaving recoverable remains.

There is a small logistics problem emerging with regard to the unidentified dead in Falfurrias: Their section in the cemetery is running out of room. "We didn't see this before," says the mortuary's field director, Angel Rangel, who has worked there 27 years. "Not a month goes by now we don't find cadavers." Once the funeral home kept just two disaster bags in stock; today it orders cases of six to 12 at a time. The mortuary is purchasing a 4-wheel drive truck because its van meant for paved streets is a ruin. "It might not sound like you want a loved one in the back of a truck but it's the best way to take them out," Rangel explains. He uses the term "loved one" for migrants, not "aliens," "illegals," or even, when they're dead, "deceased."

"Well, they're someone's loved ones," he says. Like other locals, Rangel opines that as long as Mexicans need work and families want to be together, people will continue to risk the journey. "And the smugglers will keep telling them it's not that hard. People have no idea they have to walk. We find housewives and the overweight. If you're already sick, you won't make it. The sand gives way as you walk so your feet start to burn. We find them with blisters all over their feet."

Rangel seems affected by what he has seen, maybe because he makes the first call to the family for those who are easily identified. He wants me to know, however, that any relative who happens to be traveling with the dying person sticks around, even though it means both will fail at the enormous task they began. "They walk out there, father and son as a unit, a loved one slowly deteriorating. Here all those dreams just die, in the middle of nowhere."

On an early spring morning, mist hangs among trees in the Sacred Heart Burial Park. About two dozen graves lie in a section by themselves, each topped with a small aluminum marker scratched with a pen knife. Names: "Unknown," "Skeletal Remains," "Remains, Male." One says, "Unknown Female, d. Feb. 22, 2007." They are graced with a motley collection of plastic flowers, some nearly overgrown by tufts of grass, others dusty, but adding color and linking the section somehow to the better-kept graves in the rest of the cemetery. Each aluminum marker names the ranch where remains were found: El Tule, Cage, King, Vickers, Laboretto Creek... A single bird sings in short bursts up in a tree somewhere, unseen. No one attended these burials. Where do all the plastic flowers come from? A caretaker passes. He shrugs. "Gente de buena voluntad," he says, as if the answer were obvious. "People of good will."

The Accidental Coyote

The seduction of easy money, $1,500 for a quick trip to Houston with an undocumented passenger, and no checkpoints to cross - has been too tempting for some residents of Falfurrias. "Bill," 43, a heavy equipment operator with a wife and daughter, became a criminal two years ago, an accidental coyote. Someone offered him big money to take an illegal immigrant who had just made it through the desert for a no-risk ride - he'd start from north of the last Border Patrol checkpoint - and the extra cash became a habit. Recently he's started working with a more serious, deliberate coyote, now running him down to Mission twice a week for $700 each time - again no risk, since Border Patrol isn't likely to stop a car traveling south. There are probably fewer than a dozen such local coyotes, authorities and Bill say, and probably half of them would be doing something illegal anyway, running small amounts of dope, for instance. But Bill had never been in jail in his life, except for a few hours in high school for speeding. He's not one of the despicable coyotes who lie and would just as soon leave someone to die when he's squeezed off schedule. "I was trying to start a septic tank business. If I do it seven more months I think I can start."

But the extra cash has helped Bill revive an old cocaine habit. And when a cop stopped him for an out-of-date tag and found an undocumented person in the car, Bill was warned and released but it went on his record, so he lost his good regular job and has settled for one that pays less. Starting the septic tank business may take more time than he thought.

He should quit or be extra careful; if he's caught again he goes to jail. But now he's a little afraid, just like some townspeople are cautious about local coyotes, lest they be connected to mean ones. "They should be afraid," suggests Bill. Not of him, he insists, of others. "We each work with a chain and if you steal someone off another one's chain or do something else they don't like they say, 'The mafia will take care of you.' That's the Mexican mafia."

Bill doesn't think he'd make it in prison. "I'm not the prison type," he said.

Note: Images of the Dead -- There is a human toll to illegal immigration. The corpses of men, women, and children who perished trying to enter the country are routinely found in Brooks County. They are photographed by law enforcement officials and private citizens. Police use the photos to investigate the deaths. Private citizens bring them to their elected officials and urge action. The Texas Observer has made available a photo gallery of some of these photos which illustrate the human cost of immigration policy. Warning: The images are very graphic and disturbing.

What the War on Terror Has Done to Texas

Under the night sky an armored skybox lifts its sleek head from the sand and rises into the air on hydraulic legs, jerking into place like some monstrous desert insect. At the controls, a 21-year-old Texas National Guard soldier packing a 9 mm semiautomatic sidearm watches a gray-toned screen, where figures tracked by a night-vision camera appear from behind a mesquite bush, duck behind it again, then materialize once more, moving north toward the Rio Grande. The soldier, recently returned from Iraq near the Kuwait border, watches alone in the air-conditioned box. He's looking for illegal border-crossers, just as he searched out "the enemy" -- the object of military reconnaissance -- in the other desert. From this height, an irrigation canal winds slender and graceful as a rivulet below, under a half-moon that gives just enough light to confuse the naked eye about what it might be seeing in the distance. People? Animals? Iraq prepared him for this mission, the soldier says, with experience in "staying vigilant, alert."

Later, on the ground, the soldier's partner emerges from a white vehicle parked on the canal road, packing his own Beretta, wearing a couple of ropes of extra ammunition around his neck. Will he have to use the weapon? The soldier, dressed in camouflage, stands in the dark with a million stars behind him. "I doubt it, but if I have to, I'm prepared," he says.

Five years after the events of 9/11, this is what the war on terror looks like on the West Texas border. During a rare, prime-time television address to the nation in May, President Bush announced Operation Jump Start: the deployment of 6,000 Guard troops from San Diego to Brownsville, an increase in Border Patrol personnel from its current strength of 12,000 to 18,000, and "bringing the most advanced technology" to the border line, including the kind used in Afghanistan and Iraq: more infrared cameras, motion sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles. Because of rotations, the number of National Guard expected to serve on the border in the next two years will reach into the tens of thousands. Yet Bush insists, "The United States is not going to militarize the southern border."

But the terror war here is not just marked by the coming of soldiers. It's a campaign marked by elements of low-intensity conflict, or LIC. That is the same doctrine, codified during the Reagan administration, which shaped U.S. assistance to Central American countries in the 1980s. Areas were militarized to control local populations while insurgencies flared. There's no insurgency here, but there are drug runners and unlawful immigrants. LIC includes military deployment, such as that of the Guard, and paramilitary presence, like the Minutemen, but it's more. It's a doctrine that blurs the lines between civilian and military, and between local and federal authorities. It's a doctrine that calls for militarization in the name of national security, turns civilians into suspects, puts rights at risk, changes the air, uses fear as a tool of control.

In San Elizario, a town near the skybox, neighbors often come over to Ray Carrillo's on afternoons when they want to drink a beer and shoot the breeze, and lately to talk over the change in atmosphere, a feeling like the coming of war. They call Ray Camaron, either because he was red as a shrimp when he was born "or because I'm real short." It's not just the soldiers they talk about. Citizen militias like the Minutemen-a local one is called the Border Regulators-have appeared. And they talk about the sheriff. From January to June, the El Paso County Sheriff's Department jumped the firewall between local and federal authority, setting up Operation Linebacker blockades in colonias and towns like this one, asking even U.S. citizens who looked Mexican to present papers.

Late in 2005, Gov. Rick Perry initiated Operation Linebacker "to increase both public safety and national security," distributing $10 million to date to 16 border sheriffs' departments. Perry's Linebacker is a politically mindful, "get-tough" stand, taken while immigration is exploding as a national issue. It plays well to voters who can be convinced that we have "lost control" of the border. But the cost can be high. El Paso deputies detained 860 undocumented persons under Linebacker in the first half of 2006, many with deep roots in local communities, and turned them over to the Border Patrol. Rights monitors claim public safety is being undermined because residents have become more afraid to call law enforcement for any reason, out of concern they will be asked for documents. Arguably, the air of mistrust also crimps any search for bona fide terrorists, work that depends greatly on community policing and intelligence. Not every sheriff's office in the coalition uses Linebacker funds the way El Paso does. Local enforcement chooses how grants are spent. Yet Linebacker's motivator statewide is national security, central to its drawing power for funds, and it's the kind of sanction that gives a green light to local law enforcers to become de facto federal law enforcers.

One day Carrillo, a U.S. Navy veteran, stood in his welding yard, amid machinery and tankers under repair and barking dogs. He pulled out his cell phone and called the Spanish language TV station in El Paso as neighbors and his workmen were being picked off at the roadblocks. It was a cry for help, or at least for some attention from the wider world. "I've lived here 24 years, and there's been nothing like this before," says Carrillo, a 36-year-old father of two.

"That's the Torres house, that's Martinez, that's Garcia-he's in the service-and that's Telles, the one they named the street over there for," says Carrillo on a ride through town. He waves at the driver of a passing truck. "And there goes my brother." This part of San Elizario began as a rough colonia, unimproved lots where families have seen water come to houses only in the last few years, although many, like Carrillo's mother, don't have gas yet, and sewage systems are still a dream. That means part of Camaron's business is modifying the trucks that go around cleaning septic tanks. He sweeps an arm to take in concrete brick houses rising among the nopales and pink tunas, and a developer's sign that announces: Coming Soon - Mission Style, 31 Lots. Progress in making colonias a decent place to live has come hard, but now people are scared. Households have always been a mix of citizens, legal residents, and undocumented relatives, but the war on terror is changing lives. Take a ride around other colonias east of El Paso -- Agua Dulce, Sparks, around Horizon and Montana Vista -- and you hear more. For weeks during the Linebacker stops, neighbors brought food and diapers to houses where fathers had been taken by authorities and mothers didn't dare go into the streets. Priests reported churches vacant. A clinic usually bursting with the uninsured stood empty of families, the sick unattended. Today those who are undocumented, and relatives, remain uneasy. Around San Elizario the occasional Lazy Boy or old sofa in a yard sits empty. "People used to walk around more, used to walk down along the edge of the cotton field over there along the river for exercise, late in the day," says mechanic Jessie Rubio, 46, a friend of Camaron's.

On a July morning, as Rubio spoke under a shade tree outside the family's trailer home, his 11-year-old son, Jose Luis, tinkered with a car engine, and a lone, white egret was the only other creature visible in the expanse between Rubio's yard and the line that marks the border. "What if a Minuteman mistakes me and shoots me?" he asks. Then there's the Guard. "They can make a mistake with somebody taking a stroll, because now there's too many guns and too many people. Somebody will say, 'I'm an American, you can't tell me what to do,' and there'll be trouble. Sometimes you get mad when you get asked so much for papers. You feel racism starting to climb. You can feel the tension." Being asked for papers to go to the store "felt like those countries you hear about where soldiers and police are taking over and can search you," says Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Chihuahua when he was six. He votes, and like other residents, is pleased when he reads the Border Patrol has busted drug runners. "They could hurt my son," he says. But Rubio feels less ownership of his neighborhood now, questions why it's feeling like a front line, and senses danger. "In a war situation you're looking at people and asking, 'Friend or foe?' Well, now you're getting people coming in from different parts, the Guard and Minutemen, and here we all look the same. In a war zone they don't know who is who."

Guard spokesmen reiterate that soldiers have authority only to call in the Border Patrol, not to arrest suspicious persons. Yet on the ground, fear of running into a soldier and being challenged is far greater than running into a Border Patrol agent. Partly this is because agents are familiar, but the soldiers are not. Partly it's because residents see soldiers at war on TV every day, pictured amid explosions and in combat, then, disconcertingly, see them behind their back yards. And partly fear rises because residents know soldiers who are trained for war, or recently returned from war, may have a mind-set that doesn't belong in the neighborhood. It's not an outlandish concern: Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson told The Washington Post in October 2005 that 12 percent of returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan seen at Veterans Administration facilities suffered from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. But Suzanne Dennis, an Air Force veteran of Desert Storm who returned six months ago from Baghdad deployment as a public affairs specialist with the Texas National Guard, dismissed anxiety about stressed-out soldiers on the line. "They just switch gears," Dennis says, from the battlefield to assisting the Border Patrol. "If you can't switch, you don't belong there."

Nevertheless, for those in houses near the line, living in the zone now brings a sensation of the ground shifting under their feet. For Ray Carrillo, it also comes with a hunch his role in life is changing, because what is experienced as repression demands a response. "It just clicked," says Carrillo about the moment when the Linebacker roadblocks were in full swing and the Guard was beginning to arrive. "It's illegal to ask somebody for papers without suspicion of a crime. It's not right for people to be afraid to come out of their houses." His wife wants to move a few miles east to Fabens, but now Carrillo is deciding to stick around, staying in touch with rights groups, monitoring, listening, "protecting my rights, my kids, my neighbors."

"I didn't just throw a rock and run," says Camaron about the roadblocks. "I stood my ground, in the light."

President Bush, the Border Patrol and the military declare the border is not militarized, but it is. Experts say it began years ago. In 1986, President Reagan issued a directive designating illegal drug traffic as a threat to U.S. "national security," which permitted the Department of Defense to enter a range of "anti-drug" activity, including on the border. Even before that, in 1981 Congress passed amendments that diluted the strength of the 100-year-old Posse Comitatus Act, which had strictly prohibited deputizing military to carry out domestic law enforcement. The Pentagon's Center for the Study of Low Intensity Conflict helped design the Border Patrol's "Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyond," devoted almost entirely to immigration control.

The rhetoric of violence has taken over in a new way since September 11, 2001, replacing the language of immigration enforcement, border policy, or even drug interdiction with the language of fighting terrorism. When Gov. Perry's Border Security Plan announced support for Operation Linebacker, its overview began with these words: "Al-Qaeda leadership plans to use criminal alien smuggling organizations to bring terrorist operatives across the border into the U.S." Douglas T. Mosier, Border Patrol spokesman in El Paso, says, "Our primary objective now is preventing terrorists and instruments of terrorism from entering." Rick Glancey, spokesman for the El Paso County Sheriff's Department, says its job is the "same as the Border Patrol, preventing terrorism."

"Every day you have drugs coming in duffel bags," says Glancey, who is also interim executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition and helped develop Linebacker. "Today narcotics, tomorrow weapons of mass destruction. Since September 11 we've seen the border is perfect for someone to take advantage of the United States. We will not let this happen on our watch, Mr. and Mrs. America, you can be sure of that."

In his downtown office, where a side table is spread with baseball hats from other lawmen's offices, Sheriff Leo Samaniego looks like a courtly grandfather, tall, 70-ish, smiling, at ease with his reputation as master of one of the best-regarded departments in the country. A civil-rights lawyer who has sparred with him legally says, "His roadblocks were a bad call, but this guy's a great sheriff." Samaniego is unrepentant about his "traffic stops" and insists they "will start again." He halted them only temporarily, he says, to "cool off" the rights groups and citizens like Camaron, who had begun receiving attention with their complaining. The fact is that 9/11 has "definitely" changed his job, the sheriff says, and there's no going back. "I'd rather be accused of overstepping my authority than sitting on my butt and doing nothing while we're in war," he says.

If the lines between local and federal authorities are blurring, so are lines between civilian and military operations. This landscape looks like Iraq. Units have arrived to assist the Border Patrol before going to the Middle East. "You can bet it can be beneficial to them," says Mosier. "They're getting used to a desert environment you can't get at a base in the East or the Midwest." Troops bring advanced military technology, different and better than what the Border Patrol has, and which only the military has the training to run. "Equipment such as that tried and tested in the Middle East can be beneficial in this kind of topography," Mosier says. "If that technology is applicable and feasible (there is) no reason to think it won't be considered for future use."

For Mosier, having soldiers on the border is not militarization, but "homeland security in support of a very real and vital mission." From the Border Patrol to the National Guard, the word is consistent: Soldiers in Operation Jump Start, President Bush's initiative, have no direct law enforcement duties. They are here to provide force protection, free up Border Patrol agents until more can be trained, bring technology, to be "more eyes and ears." But the reality is that soldiers are trained to kill and deal with an "enemy." Local residents understand this. When the nearby city of Sunland Park, New Mexico, received a request from the Border Patrol's El Paso sector to station National Guard soldiers on the city's hill of Cristo Rey, a pilgrimage site topped by a monumental white cross visible from Mexico and frequented mostly by faithful from Texas, residents rebelled. The City Council voted to deny the right-of-entry permit. "Militarily trained is not Border Patrol trained," says a 35-year-old El Paso native who picnics on the hill. "The Border Patrol doesn't walk up to you with a weapon pulled-people are afraid of others running around there with M-16s."

There is another reason more military personnel will be coming to El Paso: Fort Bliss is set to receive 20,000 new soldiers in the next five years (present number: 13,000). Spokesmen say the influx is not part of a strategy to strengthen military presence on the border, but due instead to re-stationing of units from overseas and from installations closed in the armed forces' Base Realignment and Closure process. Did the strategic border location of Fort Bliss affect the BRAC decision not to close it, when the process eliminated so many others? "Not to my knowledge," says Public Affairs Officer Jean Offut. Furthermore, the base "has nothing to do" with National Guard stationed in and around El Paso, or with their assignments.

No matter what the reason for supersizing Fort Bliss, the effect is a sensation of further militarization of the community, says Timothy Dunn, a border scholar (The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border 1978-1992) and sociologist at Salisbury University in Maryland. "Also, that means there's a much bigger pool to draw upon for border duty by JTF North." Originally called JTF-6, in 1997 Marines in the anti-drug joint task force, supporting the Border Patrol, shot and killed an 18-year-old American named Esequiel Hernandez as he tended family goats in rural Redford, Texas. The Marines were never charged. JTF-6 morphed into JTF North, based at Fort Bliss, now charged with supporting law enforcers such as the Border Patrol with "interdiction of suspected transnational threats." That's fence and road building, but it's also training, and that's "not innocuous," says Dunn. "It's militaristic stuff including interrogation techniques, booby traps and weapons. A large part of low-intensity conflict doctrine always has been U.S. military units training local forces. What happens is that military thinking comes to have a role in civilian enforcement."

Nearly half the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States entered legally and overstayed visas. Most illegal drugs enter in otherwise legitimate cargo and traffic. Operations Jump Start and Linebacker don't affect them. Meanwhile, the poor of Mexico and Central America continue to regard work in the United States as a lifeline, even if they must come illegally to grab it. Absent coherent domestic and multilateral policy, the war on the border, like the war on terror, is endless, and increasingly dangerous. "It's like two tsunamis, one coming up from the south, and increased militarization coming from the north, set to clash at the border," says University of Texas at El Paso political scientist and border researcher Tony Payan. "There is a need for a way to accommodate the flow."

In a new study, The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security, Payan suggests that the "real failure" of 9/11 was the lack of intelligence coordination to detect and apprehend potential terrorists entering anywhere. Mexican border security became a special focus, with law enforcement redefined as a matter of national security. The focus carries hostility not only to crossers but those who live in the area, "an escalation that has not paid off" because workers and drugs are coming at the same rate as five years ago. What has changed toward undocumented workers since 9/11, as Payan puts it, is "the perception of intentionality," that "this is not someone coming to take a job, but someone who will harm America."

Under a midday sun, the skeleton of a big river crab lies intact on the flat, baked earth. Which of the twigs coming out of the ground are motion sensors? Which are bare plants? A green and white Border Patrol car appears out of nowhere. The agent asks a few questions and seems in no hurry to drive away. He's been on the job 16 years, he says. Sure, it's fine that the Guard are here, but he doesn't figure it will change his job much, endlessly patrolling this line. Has he ever been in danger? Well, the drug runners have taken to throwing big rocks at the patrol cars, which is dangerous if one hits while he's driving fast. Sometimes the rocks smash right through the windshield, which cuts off the chase because it's all you can do to keep the car from flipping. He wants to make sure I'm not confused, not thinking it's the migrants trying to sneak into the country who throw the stones. "It's the drug ones, you know, not the ones coming to work." Later, on another part of the line where bushes grow, where it's possible to climb down to the cool river, where a Mexican family on the other side has spread its cloth to eat lunch, another agent drives up, this one brusque. "Be careful around here, like if you go down to the river, because if we see you coming up, we don't know who you are," he says.

On another day, as light fades in the August sky, Texas National Guardsmen inside a windowless camera room are intent on a bank of full-light screens and pink-toned night vision screens, working joysticks to pan the views, watching "bodies," as they call them, figures on the Mexican side of the river. "I was doing basically the same thing in Iraq, entry points, vehicles, looking for suspicious activity," says a 33-year-old from El Paso back from Tikrit. "There they were penetrating the wall around our base. This is like they're penetrating our home. We don't want terrorists to come in." Another soldier watches for "massing," a gathering of several figures who might come across in a group and overwhelm a single agent. But El Paso has been flooded with rains, and the same river that was low just a few days before runs full and treacherous now. "You'd have to be crazy to try that river tonight," says a 20-year-old Specialist 4. "Or desperate."

Nevertheless, hours after sunset Senior Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Garcia is driving the levee roads, amid tumbleweeds that blow up in the dark, catching jackrabbits in the headlight beams, his radio crackling with traffic from soldiers in the camera room and agents on the borderline who are spotting the crazy, or desperate, crossers. Visual on six to eight subjects... Changing clothes... Bodies up on the levee now... Those bodies are running back now... Garcia throws the SUV into four-wheel drive, driving expertly, ready for sinkholes on flats near the marsh. Another radio voice. Five to six subjects. Goin' up. Running north from Duty exit. "Well, night is the busiest time," says Garcia, who joined the Border Patrol six years ago. Two spotters... Four guys crouching... Agents respond. Outside San Elizario, Garcia rolls to a stop. From the levee an agent in a patrol car is "cutting" north across the sand with his flashlight beam, looking for tracks. Dogs are barking; other agents search a yard with flashlights. Garcia peers into a ditch. For now, they get away. Watching these agents, it's clear that they are well trained, ready for anything. Some have specialized degrees, many served in the armed forces themselves. Deterrence through ubiquity and obvious surveillance is the policy, but if someone breaches the line, they know the pathways. It seems tonight that only the sheer number of those who try to cross the border illegally means some get through.

Garcia drives more miles along the borderline, until he pulls up alongside a white pickup. Inside, an agent is behind the wheel, watching a small, green screen divided into quadrants mounted on his dashboard. Standing high in the truck bed is a FLIR, or forward looking infrared camera, trained south. Only days before, a lone patroller nearby captured a group of 10 migrants, and two drug runners with 90 pounds of marijuana in duffels. Without the FLIR, says the agent at the dashboard screen, that lone patroller would have caught the escaping drug runners, but missed the drugs they jettisoned, which the FLIR's eye saw. Garcia is thoughtful. "Every day what we're doing out here is a war against terror-after 9/11 that became number one," he says. And "you can't say it's militarizing the border" to have the soldiers here. "You don't see military vehicles running up and down the line, and again, the Guard has no direct power to arrest." The desert is silent except for the cry of cicadas. The FLIR agent never takes his eyes off the screen, and suddenly he is sending a message. One spotter trying to get on the river... Should pop out any minute...

The Silencer

Joy, consternation, and for some, outright shock is reverberating among Catholics worldwide at the first sight of their new pope in his red robes, Benedict XVI. The most conservative regard the German Joseph Ratzinger as their champion, with his influential rock-hard stands against gay unions, cloning and the ordination of women, and against any dismantling of the firewall between Catholicism and every other religion in the world. Liberals regard him as medieval, a threat to theological exploration of sexual ethics, pluralism and a Church for the third millennium.

Now he is pontiff of all, and both sides are holding their breath.

One key to Benedict's papacy may be found far from the elegant St. Peter's Square and far from after-mass coffees in U.S. church halls, in the villages and rough urban misery belts of Latin America, the globe's most Catholic region, where Ratzinger made one of his hallmark stands as a Vatican force. There in the l980s, he powerfully confronted the fast-moving tide of liberation theology, an intellectual and popular movement that linked Catholic theology and political activism in everyday issues of social justice and human rights. Officially, Ratzinger reversed the tide, forbidding certain Catholic theologians to publish in what was called a "silencing."

Ratzinger issued a 1984 document with something like the force of law called an "Instruction," defining Rome's opposition to liberation theology's "fundamental threat" and weighing in on naming conservative Latin bishops.

Unofficially, liberation theology lives. On a continent of some 500 million where most are poor, where the promise of neo-liberal economic plans of the l990s didn't pan out and three-quarters of the population now lives under democratically elected leftist governments, the attraction of a Catholicism that links God's will with the desire for a better and more dignified life in the here and now -- not just after death -- remains strong. How Benedict XVI faces this reality, for face it he must in a Church that claims to be not just "one" but "universal," will be a marker of his papacy.

In the 1980s the Berlin Wall remained intact, and Ratzinger believed liberation theology was incipient Marxism with a religious veneer. He zeroed in on some intellectual proponents who linked Marx and Jesus. He did not focus on the outcomes of Vatican II -- where Ratzinger himself was considered a liberal reformer -- and the Latin American conferences in Medellin and Puebla, where bishops decided that the Latin Church must stake its future on "an option for the poor." He did not publicly regard the thousands of small communities who were reading the Bible together in a new way, sitting under trees or on dirt floors with no clergy or intellectuals in sight, finding what they called the strength to be actors in their lives.

What would have happened, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans ask to this day, if Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II had regarded the Latin American call for liberation from autocratic rulers with the same force with which the European churchmen supported the Polish Solidarity revolution?

On the eve of his election as pope, Ratzinger addressed the cardinals with an unmistakable condemnation of "relativism," which can include the idea that one religion is as good as another. He addressed it again last year in a book, "Called to Communion." In the 1980s, the idea rankled Ratzinger that liberation theology was not strictly Catholic, but "frequently tries to create a new universality for which the classical church divisions are supposed to have become irrelevant."

Indeed, liberation theology was quickly spreading at the time, and not only geographically, from its magnetic center in thatched roof chapels in Latin America to Africa, the Philippines, and the barrios of North America. It was jumping churches, too. Renowned American Protestant thinkers such as Robert McAfee Brown spoke to it, and defended Catholic theologians "silenced" by Ratzinger. Fr. Luis Gurriaran, a Spanish Sacred Heart priest working in rural Guatemala, once recalled how fundamentalist evangelical Protestant preachers -- the proliferation of which are seen as a headache by bishops today -- embraced local forms of liberation theology after massacres or intense hardships in their communities. "Those who identify with their congregations come to look at the world through their eyes," he said. How the new Pope regards this mutual embrace of people of faith on the ground, no matter what their churches, will be key to the shape of his tenure.

Archbishop Oscar Romero began his administration of the San Salvadoran church as an orthodox, conservative prelate who made no waves. But he stayed in touch with his congregations in a personal way, and listened as over the years they told him of family members taken by death squads. He looked at the books of photos of the disappeared and bodies of civilians who opposed the government found tortured, records that his church workers collected to help parishioners. From his pastoral work and writing out of reflection upon it, from his defense of the poor acting to change their own situation - even politically -- and from his 1980 assassination by a death squad after calling for a stop to the killing in the civil war, Romero came to be considered a symbol of the best of liberation theology.

In Pope Benedict's first words "to the city and the world" from the balcony at St. Peter's, he called himself an "insufficient instrument" and "a simple worker in the vineyard." Will he listen with pastoral ears, as Archbishop Romero did, to the voices of ordinary Catholics, gay, divorced, the alienated, the seeking? Will he listen with new ears to the realities that underpin the theology of liberation in all its senses, what Latin American Catholics call "the cry of the people?"

Leaded Grasshoppers

SEASIDE, Calif. -- Elevated levels of toxic lead are being found in the blood of children at a small airy clinic in this central coastal town of 33,450 people. The culprit may be grasshoppers captured 2,000 miles away in Mexican villages, lovingly fried with garlic, salt and lime and sent by the pound in care packages to family members here.

Medics say the calamity illustrates how dangerously stuck in the past public health care may be, in an increasingly borderless world, and in a state where more than a quarter of the population is foreign-born.

"We all grew up there eating the grasshoppers and other things and nothing happened," puzzled Minerva, who prepared lunch one recent afternoon for three of her own children and a niece in a small, trim house cooled by an ocean breeze. Like most newcomers here, Minerva's husband, sister and brother-in-law, who share the house, and her immigrant neighbors work in laundry, hotel-maid and other service jobs in nearby, wealthier towns like Monterey and Pebble Beach. Minerva's healthy-looking 9-year-old daughter chatters in English as she wolfs down tostadas at the table with the other kids. She was among those found with dangerously high lead levels at a routine screening at the Seaside Family Health Center.

Seventy-five per cent of lead poisoning cases statewide in the last three years have been Latino children. Recent investigative news reports point to Mexican candy as one source. In November, because of the Seaside cases, State Health Director Diana M. Bont warned pregnant women and children especially against the grasshoppers treat. But community health workers say such developments mean lead poisoning has a new, inadequately recognized face. And they point to special challenges in reaching indigenous immigrants -- increasing in number -- who may be distrustful of doctors, illiterate or, like members of Minerva's family, undocumented.

"New solutions are needed because old ones won't work," said Dr. Margaret Handley of UCSF's Department of Family Medicine, who is investigating the local outbreak. Through careful conversation with mothers over the months, a Spanish-speaking nurse, Celeste Hall, and the clinic's Dr. Eric Sanford determined children born in two Zapotec Indian villages in the southern state of Oaxaca -- or U.S.-born children whose parents came from the villages -- were the ones testing high for lead. Other immigrant kids did not. Virtually all public service health education literature in California about lead poisoning -- even in Spanish -- refers to old paint as the source, but that was ruled out after inspections.

Local and state health departments were slow-moving and strapped for funds. Sanford and Hall spent their own time and money trying to track the poisoning source. One suspect was a distinctive green-glazed Oaxacan pottery found in Seaside homes. But even if families used the pottery for food it would produce a steady, low level of exposure, not spikes as seen here; moreover, it's universally used by regional immigrants, and only patients linked to the two villages exhibited high lead levels.

"The children's levels are either low or off the charts, so it's acute exposure we're looking at," said Sanford, who does believe Oaxaca is the source of the poisoning. One child's level jumped from two micrograms per deciliter to 35 after eating the grasshoppers. Levels above 10 are considered high. Sanford and Hall also sent other foods for testing that came from the villages -- favorites tamarind candy, pumpkin seeds, chocolate and tortillas -- and some were contaminated. They went to Handley, an epidemiologist.

Like a detective, Handley pursued leads. One breakthrough document: a British study on plants and animal life that developed amid old mine tailings in Wales and Ireland. "A highly significant relationship" existed between lead contaminated grass and grasshoppers around the abandoned mines, researchers wrote. Grasshoppers can carry high concentrations of the metal without being fatally poisoned.

Dozens of gold and silver mines once flourished around the home villages of the Seaside immigrants. Owned by American and other companies, they are abandoned now. Lead is a by-product of extraction and processing.

With cross-border traffic constant and fast, there has been no loss of access to native foods for California's newest immigrants. A single tortilla fresh from Oaxaca can sell in this town for $1, but most of the homemade favorites come by relatives or paid carriers in a deep and wide courier network. But without a full-blown investigation it is difficult to pin down the source of the lead poisoning precisely. And community health workers say any heavy-handed official attack on the traditional foods from home would be wrong and counterproductive.

At the Seaside clinic, poisonous levels in children's blood continue to turn up around once a week, month after month. Lead poisoning can lead to learning disabilities, diminished IQ, impaired motor development and anti-social behavior. Because there is no signal event -- no rash or fever, no sudden collapse -- it is difficult to convince some parents a child is endangered.

"We need to do a full-on investigation like we'd do with any other epidemic outbreak," Handley says. "Would this get more attention if these kids were in Pebble Beach?"

Meanwhile, the trust that Sanford and Hall clearly maintain on a personal level with the Seaside immigrant community is tested the longer they cannot absolutely determine the poisoning source. Hall, who is married to a Zapotec from one of the host Mexican villages, says her family will lay off of grasshoppers. Minerva's family may not.

"Why do anything different if no one is sure?" asked Minerva.

Border Death Traps

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico -- In this crowded, bustling town, migrants gather to collect their strength and make connections that will take them across the watery border and safely by road -- they hope -- to work or join family and friends in the United States. The horrific discovery of a trailer truck filled with dead and dying undocumented migrants near Victoria, Texas, about four hours north, is a vivid picture of the risks they face. Yet, even images of blue-gloved officers picking about for evidence as bodies of the suffocated lay still on the ground -- photos running in newspapers throughout Latin America -- are unlikely to deter the kind of expectant travelers who reach this town. Future Victorias loom.

"It's unfair -- the professionals migrate without danger," said 22-year-old Raul just days before the Victoria incident. A jobless El Salvadoran, Raul said he traveled for weeks fending off predatory Mexican police and gangs of youths his own age to reach this crossing point. He was headed for New York, where he believed an uncle lived. Once he crossed the Rio Grande, Raul figured the hired coyote -- a human smuggler -- would lead him across the desert until "some kind of transport" collected him and others for the ride to the central Houston bus terminal, from which the undocumented fan out across the country. Coyote cost: $1,500.

Hundreds of young men wait here nervously every day in sight of the tantalizing "line," a shallow strip of the Rio Grande or grassy leap from many points in town, with a gigantic U.S. flag visible flapping widely over the sister city of Laredo on the other side. To talk to some of them is to hear so many stories of determination that it's hard to believe another Victoria will not happen.

"We can give (our children) a life if we cross," said Antonio, one of three Honduran fathers taking a break installing windows at a shelter run by Roman Catholic nuns. An out-of-work sewing machine operator, Antonio knew the dangers of crossing the border clandestinely, but said factory jobs at home paid just $15 a week. His new Honduran friends, met on the migrants' trail, nodded in assent. "He might not recognize me now," said Antonio of a 2-year-old at home, "but we have slept in the streets and suffered other terrible things to get this far. When he grows up, he will know what a father does."

The packed trailer outside Victoria claimed l8 lives, including a young boy reportedly found in his father's arms. It was the highest single death toll in an immigrant smuggling incident in recent memory. Less visible along the Rio Grande and in the flat, hot desert between here and Victoria is the painfully regular incidence of individual migrant fatalities, averaging almost one a day in the last few years, according to one attempted counting. Drowning, dehydration, extreme weakness that draws attacks of wild animals -- all are causes of the deaths noted by researchers at the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research.

"For every body found there is certainly one that isn't," said the center's co-director, Nestor Rodriguez. Bodies decompose quickly in the water, and the sun and animals make short work of other remains. In his Houston office recently, Rodriguez pulled out a file of photos and spread some across his desk. A middle-aged woman smiled in a hammock on a porch, a teen-age boy mugged for the camera and a young man held aloft a baby boy. Once word got out that the center was tracking the nameless border deaths, families sent photos and descriptions of sons and even mothers gone missing.

With summer coming, temperatures among the nopal cactus and low scrub bushes will top 100 degrees. "The desert has the upper hand right now," said Rodriguez. Yet the factors that push Mexicans and Central Americans north at the rate of hundreds of thousands a year are not diminishing: the economic slowdown that costs jobs in the United States echoes in the south, with even some Mexican border region "maquila" factories cutting their labor forces; the unfulfilled promise of economic stability at the end of the Central American wars of the l980s; and decades of more open migration that means innumerable Mexican and Central American families are now firmly transnational, their undocumented members moving in and out of the United States at risk.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, border enforcement nationwide has been strengthened. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge met April 24 in San Diego with Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel to reinforce commitment to a "Smart Border" utilizing "progressive technology." Migrant advocates and repeat undocumented migrants here confirm the crossing is "tighter" than ever. Yet without a new, clear-eyed look at the force and inevitability of migration from the south, more trailer trucks stuffed with dead and dying will certainly be found, and more individual desert and river fatalities will continue to be tabulated in the researchers' border death watch.

Unscrupulous human smugglers cannot take all the blame for the serial tragedy taking place on the U.S. side of the line.

Mary Jo McConahay is a journalist and filmmaker with long experience in the Americas. Reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

IMF Protesters Included More than White Kids with Orange Hair

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Laura Ruiz, a San Francisco high school senior, just turned 18, but she has the IMF and World Bank figured out. "What I'm learning is their policies make it hard for countries to pay debt, so they cut away money for health and education." Born in Mexico and the daughter of a low-income single mother of four, Ruiz is one of thousands of protesters who filled the ellipse and marched in the streets Sunday after months of readings and workshops, each evidently compelled by personal reasons."I'm grateful to be in the U.S., but I feel like a voice for those still in Mexico," she said.Ruiz, who wears a black beenie cap favored by African Americans with dreadlocks and credits an SAT coaching course for her admission to college, is the opposite of the media's repeated depictions of protesters with white faces and Ivy League credentials, or flamboyant orange hair and a bandanna mask.Yet talking with young people here, it's clear that Ruiz represents a strong stream in the anti-globalization movement -- the broadening base of immigrant and first-generation young people of color, blacks and a huge number of Americans who have spent time in developing countries.In a world gone small, two understandings appear to join young and older, white and non-white, American- and foreign-born demonstrators: First, that the direction of the world's economy is too important to be left in the hands of a few institutions who often act in secret. Second, an assumption -- outrageous on its face but fiercely embraced -- that one holds personal responsibility for shaping that economy."For a long time economics has been a jargon that people think has to be left only to experts," said 24-year-old Miriam Joffe-Block, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. "Now people look at the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF and say, 'We know what's happening.' It's in the consciousness of youth, and it's exciting."Joffe-Block belongs to a national network of students who pressure their schools to cancel contracts with manufacturers who use low-wage laborers in foreign factories.Her own special awareness of policies came during a study semester in rural Thailand. It was in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, when investors were massively withdrawing funds. "Everyone suddenly was out of work," she recalled. "A woman I knew who received formula from a government program because she has AIDS and couldn't nurse her baby, found the formula cut. I saw this free flow of capital over borders, but no right to organize inside.""Globalization doesn't have a moral component," insisted Melinda St. Louis, also 24. "It takes humanity away here too because we tolerate it, as if we have no responsibility to them."St. Louis, mid-Atlantic regional organizer for the United Students Against Sweatshops, spoke in the back of a neighborhood church -- St. Stephen's Episcopal in Northwest D.C. -- as she shuffled arrangements for tables and fliers at one of dozens of satellite meetings around the demonstration.Laura Ruiz, who dreams of becoming a journalist, was making a video of youth activists meeting in the basement of St. James church in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. "Name" speakers appeared at the church attended by President Clinton and the Jewish Community Center, and congregations across the city readily offered sanctuaries to organizers. It was a sign for many that globalization issues had entered the mainstream, linked with neighborhood issues which are the churches' traditional concern like homelessness and hunger -- "economic justice issues that go to the moral fiber of a lot of people," as St. Louis said.Protesters connect concerns as disparate as animal rights, environmental destruction from giant dams, corporate sponsorship in schools and sweatshops abroad -- and see the trade and financial institutions as the prime movers of an unjust system. "All these issues are interacting," said Diana Bohn, a potter and adult education teacher in her 40s from Berkeley who came to support Jubilee 2000, a movement by faith-based organizations to cancel the debt of the world's poorest countries.As a volunteer in Nicaragua, Bohn said she saw the deleterious effects when IMF loan conditions required a 75 percent cut in the country's health care budget. With these experiences come connections and commitments. Bohn was one of about 25 million Americans who now travel overseas, and millions more to Mexico, many of whom are students. (Some ten percent of all bachelor degree candidates now study abroad.)Before traveling to D.C., Bohm said she attended a church meeting where friends discussed homelessness and people out of work. "We realized that globalization is here and some people don't have jobs because the jobs have gone somewhere else, where others are paid less. So then you have to be concerned about them too, because as Jesus said, if you do this to one of my brethren you do this to me."At the event Ruiz attended, young people -- blacks and others of Southeast Asian, Latino and Filipino-American origin -- shared reasons for coming to Washington."Most of those affected by these policies like structural adjustment are people of color, like me," said a young man from Atlanta. A woman from the Boston Revolutionary Youth Collaborative said she identified with workers and indigenous people that she had learned about who were "repressed" when they rebelled against belt-tightening policies imposed as conditions for international loans, or against forced relocation for development projects. "I would have died -- like my friends who died from drugs -- if I didn't have this to focus on, because part of being repressed is being self-destructive," she said. "I understand that."This linking of personal concerns with the business of the international institutions, and the urge to hold them accountable to standards of social and economic justice, feeds the new protest, often led by youth."We always made the linkages between the economic and political when we brought attention to injustice in Central America and the Caribbean -- we called it 'dollar imperialism,'" said Rev. Philip Wheaten, 74, a former Episcopal priest and founder of two organizations dedicated to examining U.S. regional policy. But the young protesters, he said, "have put the whole thing together."We knew it was bad to cut forests, for instance, but we weren't environmentalists -- they are. They're farther ahead than we were, and they're totally in control of this tool of technology, Internet communication and everything computers can do."Indeed, many of those protesting a world increasingly technified at the expense of human contact nevertheless embrace fast-moving science and technology."I see what's coming so we should shape it," said Sadiqa Yancey, 23, a bio-technology graduate from Boston. She is against patenting of genes, for instance, which she considers "science contaminated by capital," and figures she can "infiltrate" future colleagues with her point of view. Yancey, who is black, said she felt obliged to come to Washington to protest after learning how bank policies have led to cuts in health budgets in Haiti, for instance, from Haitian friends and colleagues met at conferences."My ancestors were slaves in this country and the fact that I can go to school and live in the house I do is because people fought for me before I was born. Now I have to do this to honor what they did, so for the ones that come after me, there'll still be a planet that's inhabitable."

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