On Border Patrol in France ... and Texas

EXCEPT for the slightly confusing element of the warm winter sun, there's no misplacing the ancient, green-shuttered village picturesquely cascading down these Mediterranean cliffs to the turquoise sea. This is not Texas. Yet for a reporter who spent four years covering the work of the United States Border Patrol on the Rio Grande, the scene that is unfolding is cause for a little eye-rubbing.

I am standing in Menton with a group of French border police above a train track that leads from Ventimiglia, Italy. We are watching as five Tunisians make their way along the track bed to enter France illegally. Change the train track into a river, change the French border agents from their ``civies'' into the pine-green uniforms of the US Border Patrol, change the Tunisians into Mexicans, and this could be Brownsville, or El Paso, or Laredo, Texas.

The police arrest the Tunisians, but there is no tension. These are not dangerous ``prisoners'' any more than the dozens of Mexicans that I have seen the Border Patrol arrest. As I often noticed among US Border Patrol agents, there is among the French border police in Menton a sympathy that softens their actions toward the illegals. ``We know they're unfortunate. They only want something better for themselves and their families,'' says Menton principal agent Bernard Leriche. ``That's why we're not too severe with them.''

Smugglers' networks abound here to get foreigners safely across the border, just as the ``coyotes'' abound along the US-Mexico border. Here they charge about $80 for safe passage from the Italian port of Genoa into France; Turks have been arrested who paid $700 for a ``package deal'' that will supposedly take them from their native village to a job in France.

The illegal immigrants face dangers on these borders as well: Unscrupulous smugglers are not unknown, and drug traffickers, admittedly more common on the other side of the Atlantic, have few scruples about using their arms. In Texas there are scorching deserts and locked railcars; in Menton, there is a notorious cliff right on the border where 140 unsuspecting illegals have fallen to their death since 1930.

Two more arrests occur on the train track: This time it's a young Chinese couple, from Chekiang Province, smiling and asking to go to Paris. The Chinese are returned to Italian authorities, who in turn release them - no doubt only to try for Paris once again.

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