SUNLAND PARK, N.M. — It's a moonless night in the Chihuahua Desert, and the Mexican boy zips up his blue jacket to beat the chill. He's about 10 years old, if that, and he's sitting on a chain-link border fence, dangling his dusty sneakers over the American side.
He's a lookout, perhaps, for one of the criminal gangs that operate here, or maybe he's waiting for a relative's return. Then again, he might just be a kid with a couple of quarters in his pocket and a can of soda on his mind.
But whatever his purpose, the Border Patrol Bronco clattering toward him doesn't pose much of a threat. There's no gesture of defiance as the truck passes, no attempt to hide. For this child, like thousands of adults who come to America illegally every day, the border is less of a sovereign boundary between nations than a game seldom lost.
"He'll probably pop over the fence when I'm gone," says David Ward, the agent behind the wheel. "There really isn't much I can do about it."
As the federal government prepares to enact tough new immigration laws passed this year, including the addition of 1,000 Border Patrol agents, there's little indication that the added enforcement will seriously limit the number of incursions.
The lesson, some observers say, is that the lure of America's plenty outweighs the nation's power, or perhaps its willingness, to seal the border with Mexico. In coming years, conditions are likely to worsen, adding fuel to a debate that is fast becoming one of the nation's most contentious.
"The forces underlying immigration are extremely strong," says Steve Murdoch, a demographer at Texas A&M University. "The difference in wages alone [between Mexico and the US] is likely to perpetuate interest in coming to America, legally or not."
In El Paso, Texas, these trends are much in evidence. In 1993, the city's Border Patrol station launched Operation Hold the Line. By placing 200 agents along the border, 24 hours a day, the station managed to reduce traffic by 70 percent, and make a substantial dent in the city's crime rate.
Yet statistics suggest that this strategy has only driven more immigrants to attempt crossings in more lightly guarded areas outside the city. Sunland Park, just 16 miles west of downtown, is a good example.
Last year, apprehensions of illegal migrants in the entire El Paso region rose 30 percent, and in the last three months, officials say, arrests are up an additional 10 percent. Squatter colonies have sprung up just yards from the border in rural areas, growing from clusters of shacks two years ago to ragtag communities of more than 30,000. Many of the people who live there, agents say, cross the border and commute to jobs downtown. Several private van lines have opened here that, agents believe, cater primarily to illegal workers.
Indeed, Operation Hold the Line has not had much of an impact on El Paso's economy. A steady glut of low-skilled, low-wage labor here has kept local unemployment fixed at 11 percent, and about one-third of the area's 600,000 residents rely on welfare. Meanwhile, local officials say, many high-paying jobs that require high school diplomas remain vacant.
Yet the promise of jobs, and the roaring US economy, continues to provide compelling reasons for illegal workers to brave the border. Mexico has been slow to rebound from its 1994 peso devaluation, and according to one recent study by a pair of Texas economists, each 10 percent decrease in Mexican wages produces at least an 8 percent jump in border arrests.
There is also evidence that Mexico's dreary fiscal outlook has changed migratory patterns. In previous years, says University of Texas Prof. Bryan Roberts, most Mexican immigrants were rural laborers who planned to come to the United States to work for a time and return home. Moreover, many rural laborers often found jobs in Mexican cities.
More recently, though, particularly since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Professor Roberts says he's begun to see more immigrants who have washed out in Mexican cities and decided to head North. Although most of these people are single men and women, he says, more families are coming to the US with the intention of staying permanently. Once there, he adds, stepped-up border enforcement actually gives them more incentive to stay.
The future promises even more complications. A huge chunk of the Mexican population is about to hit working age, and there is little chance that the Mexican economy can expand rapidly enough to accommodate them. In addition, the increasing political clout of Mexican Americans could soon dampen the current push to plug the border's holes.
Millions of Hispanics have registered to vote in the last five years, and last week, the Mexican legislature passed a law allowing Mexicans living abroad to retain inheritance rights even if they become American citizens, a move that could prompt as many as 5.5 million Mexicans living here to patriate.
Already, increased border enforcement, combined with the disparity between economic conditions in the two countries, seems to be exacting a toll.
According to Mr. Ward, the assistant Border Patrol agent in charge at the Santa Teresa, N.M., station here, criminal gangs along the border have become more brazen. In one year, he says, robbers have targeted the Southern Pacific trains that run along the border 700 times, and the number of marijuana seizures has risen - a trend he expects to continue as Mexican gangs claim more of the drug market left vacant by crackdowns in other Latin American nations.
In addition, Ward says, more would-be immigrants are paying "coyotes," or smugglers, to ferry them across the border. Often, they're carried in unsafe vehicles or robbed and beaten along the way. Moreover, a recent University of Texas study found that more immigrants are attempting to cross the border in remote or treacherous areas, leading to more accidental deaths.
To advocates on both sides of the immigration debate, these disturbing developments represent a call to action. Yet whether lawmakers ultimately decide to continue fortifying the border, or seek ways to accommodate more Mexican workers, the challenges along America's southern border are not likely to fade any time soon from the public view.
"A lot of things going on in society are more starkly visible on the border," says David Spener, a researcher at the University of Texas. "The globalization of the economy, the movement of goods and people, environmental issues, and all the usual urban problems play a role here. There's no such thing as a quick fix."