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After being overrun, Douglas takes back its community

The small Arizona city became the No. 1 entryway for illegal immigrants in the mid-'90s. Now, the tide is starting to ebb.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 17, 2000


The two young men sit on a park bench in the sprawling Mexican border city of Agua Prieta. Their jeans and sneakers are covered in Sonoran dust, and their faces show a weariness of a week of sleepless nights.

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They are Mexican laborers, who have tried - and failed - four times in the past week to sneak across the border to Douglas, Ariz., and eventually, to jobs in Louisville, Ky. Now, as the warm afternoon gives way to a chilling desert night, the young men are calling it quits and heading back home - for now, at least.

"We're going back south," says Luis Orosco, an auto mechanic who speaks perfect English. After eight years working in the US, he returned to Mexico to visit his family, but has found it much tougher than he expected to get back to his job. "It used to be you could walk four or five hours and then catch a ride up north. Now, you have to walk two nights to get past the checkpoints. It's harder."

Here, in the largest illegal entryway to the United States, local residents and Border Patrol agents say they are seeing the first signs that the flood of illegal immigrants is starting to ebb. Apprehensions and turn-backs of undocumented immigrants are up, and crime has dropped at downtown businesses. More important, locals say, is that residents now feel comfortable enough to fix up their fences, paint their houses, and even take a morning jog without fear of being accosted.

To the untrained eye, Douglas is a lousy place for a smuggler's haunt. For one thing, the city is incredibly isolated from the rest of the state, tucked away behind a range of mountains in a dusty southeastern corner of the state. Nearby Nogales, by contrast, has a direct highway connection to Tucson, Phoenix, and points beyond. In addition, the local economy is hardly a job magnet: Many Douglas residents drive across the border into Mexico to work in the factories there.

But six years ago, Douglas felt a sharp increase in smuggling activity. The reason was obvious: Smuggling routes to Texas and California, with the addition of hundreds of Border Patrol agents, were effectively shut down. Douglas, with only 58 agents to patrol an area the size of Rhode Island, was virtually unprotected.

Today, under Operation Cochise, the Border Patrol is beefing up its manpower to 435 agents and targeting the transportation routes that carry immigrants off to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, and Chicago.

Last month, the Tucson sector that includes Douglas station apprehended more than 70,000 border-crossers, some 31,000 of them in Douglas alone. New checkpoints, high-tech gadgets, and a few sneaky tactics - such as undercover officers mixing with the immigrants to identify smugglers - help make these agents more effective at catching illegal immigrants and sending them home.

"The city population is very satisfied with the level of manageable control," says David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.

Some community members are less impressed with the Border Patrol, he admits, particularly those in outlying areas that continue to be overrun.

But Mr. Aguilar says his agents are gradually extending their areas of control by following an old military strategy of "gain, maintain, and expand."