On "fantasy island" in the Tijuana River, just north of the line dividing Mexico from the United States, the resolve of US border patrolmen to stem the eager tide of illegal immigrants is sorely tested.
Stone-throwing Mexican street gangs from Tijuana, report residents of this US border town on the southern fringe of San Diego, are providing offensive "cover" for the hundreds of Mexicans who daily try to cross to US soil.
Out of sight of the official border post on Route 5 -- where a single Mexican policeman welcomes Tijuana-bound traffic while legions of hard-pressed US Border Patrol agents check eight lanes of returning traffic -- the drama now unfolds almost nightly.
Border Patrol sector chief Dean Cameron's men call "fantasy island" and other sandbars in the river "Disneyland South." Just after sundown, groups of Mexicans begin appearing atop a concrete levee on the US side of the boundary.
Minutes later, as women and sometimes their children hang back to let the men bear the brunt of the assault, the Tijuana Toughs on the levee begin stoning the US Border Patrol. sometimes a rock clunks into the green "war wagons" of the patrol.
Dean Cameron's men then don their riot gear, fire tear gas and sometimes a few pistol shots into the ground, and push the Mexicans back to "fantasy island."
The US Consulate in Tijuana has asked for more cooperation from Mexican police on their side of the bustling boundary. US officials in San Diego estimate that through these diversionary tactics every night perhaps a score or more "illegals," eager to help provide willing southern California employers with cheap labor, will make it across while the patrolmen's attention is distracted by their "attackers."
Officials of both the US Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), however, worry more in private about who else, besides Mexicans lacking US visas, is crossing over.
In downtown San Diego, the US Customs offices house a giant computer center. Stored in its tapes are "profiles" of wanted individuals and groups, from members of the Puerto Rican FALN guerrilla movement through the Japanese Red Army and the Palestine Liberation Organization. These profiles are available to hundreds of other border posts, airports, and seaports with computer terminals throughout the US.
US internal security procedures, says critics here, lack teeth. The Border Patrol is forbidden to respond to force, except in extreme self-defense. Once inside the US, an "illegal" can easily evade the INS, police, and FBI agents.
"When the first order to deport Iranian diplomats came from Washington last year," one US official said, "we ended up with 135 Iranian with some kind of official status or other not present, and not accounted for. They just disappeared."
Some of them, officials here suspect, as well as other wanted persons, simply drove across to Mexico on the main Route 5 highway to Tijuana.
Smuggling of marcotics, fuel (which hordes of US motorists go to Mexico to buy legally), tobacco products, and countless other commodities, say San Ysidro shopkeepers, is a major local industry. The Border Patrol catches many petty smugglers, "But the big fish don't mess around fantasy island -- they use airplanes, fast boats, and sophisticated communications gear" to elude capture, says one US Customs source.
"The US," he adds, "is simply not a police state. This isn't the Iron Curtain. We have an open border here. . . ."
Michael walsh, former US attorney for San Diego County, has just resigned to move to private industry, after two years of trying to show evenhandedness in Hispanic and border affairs.
After arousing Hispanic furor for successfully prosecuting a popular Hispanic city councilman for customs fraud, Mr. Walsh for the first time brought charges into court against US border patrolmen for alleged brutality. A mistrial and several appeals kept the issue alive for weeks.