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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

"We don't walk away from an area until we can maintain control of it," he explains. Since it takes more resources to gain control of an area than it does to maintain control, he adds, "that gives us the resources to expand."

For most residents in the downtown area, the impact of Operation Cochise has been dramatic. Gone are the graffiti, trash, and bands of backpack-carrying laborers walking the streets or huddled on front lawns, waiting for a van to take them north.

Less noticeable, too, are the smugglers, who on one memorable evening fled law enforcement by jumping from rooftop to rooftop in the dense housing developments on the south side of town.

For those in outlying areas, however, Operation Cochise has simply diverted all those immigrants into their yards, ranches, and occasionally, their homes.

Larry Vance, a homeowner on the eastern outskirts of town, says he knows the Border Patrol agents are doing the best they can. But he is becoming increasingly frustrated by the constant flow of immigrants, often in groups of 20, who use the lights on his home as a beacon to find their way to Highway 80, where they wait for their rides out of town.

"It's worse than it's ever been," says Mr. Vance, adding that his two dogs bark at immigrants crossing his land nearly four to 10 times a night, disrupting his sleep. "I'm so darn frazzled, I can hardly speak."

While he welcomes more Border Patrol agents in Douglas, he thinks that the US should send National Guard troops and a few US Army units as well, because "this is an invasion." And he calls for better enforcement of employment laws in the interior of the US, to prevent companies from luring and hiring illegal immigrants.

For Mayor Ray Borane, the additional Border Patrol resources have come not a moment too soon. Last year, Mr. Borane, a Democrat, sent off fiery letters to President Clinton demanding relief for citizens here. It was a year when local ranchers took to defending their property with guns, occasionally apprehending illegal immigrants themselves and calling the Border Patrol to pick them up.

"The Border Patrol are doing a good job with the resources they're given," says Borane, who has some Mexican ancestry and is fluent in Spanish.

"The main problem is: What do these numbers mean?" he adds. "They say the reason we have higher numbers of apprehensions is because of a more effective program. But wait, if you look at San Diego or El Paso, they say the lower numbers show how effective they are. You can't have it both ways."

Over in Agua Prieta, Mexico, Martin Escapita has no doubts that the Border Patrol is more effective than before. Too broke to afford a coyote, the grizzled bricklayer from Chihuahua has tried four times to get across and has been captured by the Border Patrol each time.

His final capture may have actually saved his life, since bandits had beaten him up, taken his food, water, and papers, and left him delirious in the desert.

"Tonight, I'm going to try one last time," says Mr. Escapita, watching a group of immigrants follow their guide to the western side of town for the night's attempted crossing. One of the men guides a barefoot toddler by the hand. The boy is clad in only a diaper and a long-sleeved shirt.

"If I don't make it this time," says Escapita, "I'll go home."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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