Stalking Illegal Immigrants

Border Patrol strength wanes; officials say US has `lost control' on its southern frontier. WATCH ON THE RIO GRANDE

BORDER patrolman Douglas Spielman kneels behind a scraggly bush near the Rio Grande. A short distance away, two illegal aliens, still wet from crossing the river, clamber up the bank toward Brownsville - and toward the patrolman's hiding place. ``Come to papa,'' agent Spielman coaxes quietly. ``Just a few more feet, guys. A little closer. Oh, I like my job.''

Click! Click! Spielman claps handcuffs on the Mexicans before they can run, and soon they are whisked away in a Border Patrol van. This day, the battle against illegal immigration in Brownsville seems to be going well. In just a few hours, Spielman and several other patrolman apprehend nearly 60 aliens near Brownsville's two bridges.

But things don't always go so smoothly. Along America's frontier with Mexico, illegal entries are increasing sharply. Once again, there is talk in Texas that this nation's 1,953-mile southern border is spinning out of control.

The worsening problem can be found right here in Brownsville, a city of 85,000. A reporter and photographer returned the following day to the spot in a downtown riverfront park where Spielman was working. This time, they found an entirely different story - a border unguarded. Here's what they saw at one of the busiest crossing-points in Texas in less than two hours:

9:30 a.m.: Not a border patrolman in sight. Across the river, young men, probably Mexican or Central American, begin gathering in groups of five or six. They walk slowly along the Rio Grande, watching the US side.

10:00 a.m.: Large numbers of men assemble below the Gateway Bridge on the Mexican side. Some carry plastic bags. The river here is chest-deep.

10:15 a.m.: Teenagers, acting as spotters, stand on the bridge leading to the US. Using whistle signals, they warn if border patrolmen approach.

10:20 a.m.: Beneath the bridge, a group of seven or eight men edges toward the water. But they hesitate when they see an American reporter and photographer on the opposite side. ``You immigration?'' one man shouts.

10:22 a.m.: A Mexican spotter leans over the railing of the bridge. ``What you do?'' he asks. ``Immigration?'' The reporter replies: ``Journalists. Periodico [newspaper].'' The spotter laughs.

10:23 a.m.: Whistles from the bridge - apparently an ``all clear'' signal. Still no patrolmen in sight.

10:25 a.m.: The first man ventures into the water. The photographer takes his picture as he wades across. When he reaches the US side, he dresses quickly, tells reporter he is a Mexican.

10:28 a.m.: A half-dozen men, seeing the Mexican successfully cross, take off their clothes, wrap them in plastic bags, and plunge into the river. As they reach the US side, most of them look nervous as they rush past the reporter and run up an embankment.

10:45 a.m.: Several people now are moving across the river in three locations, upstream and downstream from the bridge. Still, no border patrolmen.

11:00 a.m.: A lone man wades toward the US in neck-deep water west of the bridge. He could be Central or South American: This is the No. 1 illegal entry point point for people from Nicaragua, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

11:20 a.m.: Reporter and photographer leave the scene. Still no border patrolmen. Dozens of illegal aliens have crossed and vanished unchallenged into Brownsville.

Why is the US frontier so wide open? The Border Patrol explains that it lacks the manpower.

Silvestre Reyes, chief border patrol agent for the 280-mile sector that includes Brownsville, says that with only 320 agents, his men cannot be everywhere: ``We're forced to try to outguess the aliens. Obviously, as you saw today, there's a big problem.

``Sometimes we know that four or five crossings are going to be active, but because we've only got half the units that we had the day before - the rest are off duty - we know that we're going to lose aliens coming in.''

Yet Brownsville is the hottest spot in Mr. Reyes's sector. Just one patrolman there would be a strong deterrent. But Reyes says: ``The problem is - even one agent - sometimes we don't have the resources.... Sometimes we just don't have the luxury of having even one officer walking up and down the river.''

When Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, it promised a 50 percent increase in Border Patrol manpower. Instead, the Bush administration has trimmed patrol strength, and further cuts are coming in 1990. The total number of patrol agents for the entire US border has fallen below 4,000.

Jerry Hicks, deputy chief agent in this sector, estimates that in just a three-mile segment of the river at Brownsville, as many as 400 illegal aliens are entering the US daily. Most are never caught.

Some aliens migrate for only a day - to work, to shop, and, according to Border Patrol officers, to commit crimes. But as many as half find transportation to Houston, to Miami, to Chicago, where they join friends and relatives.

Mr. Hicks urges Americans to wake up to this crisis:

``We should find a way to increase our manpower and resources so we can stop these crossings. They are illegal aliens. Most of them are coming with intent to rob or steal from the United States, or to work here illegally.''

Unlawful entries, after dropping for a time, are up about 25 percent in recent months.

Without new resolve from Washington, officials along the border say the situation will continue to grow worse and confront the US with a new illegal immigration crisis in the 1990s. Reyes concludes: ``The United States of America, the most powerful country in the world, has compromised its sovereignty and lost control of its borders.''

One in a series of articles about US border problems.

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