US Border Patrol: job is often frustrating cat-and-mouse affair. Deporting illegals only to have them return discourages agents

After busting through road blocks and breaking away from seven Border Patrol vehicles, a beat-up brown sedan bolts across a field toward the United States-Mexican border. The bruising ride is felt most acutely by the cargo stuffed in the trunk: undocumented immigrants paying up to $500 to be sneaked into the US.

The swerving car slams to a stop a yard from the border - and a barbed wire fence that separates the developed and developing world. A Border Patrol helicopter hovers above the car, almost knocking down the driver and two others as they scramble to the safety of Mexican territory. The jubilant young driver, knowing he has escaped a likely prison sentence, turns an acrobatic cartwheel.

Others don't seem so fortunate.

As a crowd of curious Mexican onlookers gravitates toward the scene, Border Patrol agents yank eight others from the car, push their faces into US soil, and then quickly load them up for a trip to the station.

For all the sound and fury of the high-speed chase, however, there is a simple irony: Later that night, each immigrant will be released in Mexico, where the cat-and-mouse routine will begin again.

It is a game that occasionally frustrates Chuck Demore and his colleagues at the Brownfield Border Patrol station, one of the most active posts along the 2,000-mile border.

``You certainly don't get bored in this job,'' laughs Mr. Demore, using binoculars to zoom in on a green and white van coming over the rise. ``But it does get frustrating sometimes.''

The four-year veteran feels that the patrol's talent and effort is sometimes used in vain. He points to this particular chase: Even though, for safety's sake, seven patrol vehicles were dispatched, the only person who could be prosecuted (the driver) escaped. And during the whole process - the chase, capture, and processing - other carloads of undocumented immigrants could have waltzed unchallenged into US territory.

Equally discouraging for the agents here are the ambiguous signals coming from Washington. The Nov. 6 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which makes it illegal to hire undocumented aliens, also provided for increased Border Patrol resources. But months later, the Reagan administration has severely cut the original budget.

But since the law was signed, border crossings have dropped of their own accord, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service says. In April, for example, arrests were down 52 percent compared with April 1986.

``Most of the aliens are just playing wait-and-see,'' says Jack E. Willingham, assistant patrol agent in charge at the Brownfield station. He explains that many potential immigrants from Mexico and Central America are hanging back to see the effects of the new law:

Will friends and family in the US continue to find jobs readily?

Will the border still be relatively easy to cross?

Other immigration experts prefer not to pin the recent drop in crossings to the immigration law.

Jorge Bustamante, director of the College of the Northern Border, a think tank in Tijuana, points to the fluctuating seasonal needs of US employers. But most important, he says, is the more than 15-fold increase in the real cost of crossing the border because of the huge devaluation of the peso since 1982.

``I almost couldn't afford to cross this time,'' says Juvenal, a young tile worker from Michoac'an State. Trapped in a car trunk moments before, he now waits to be taken back across the border. But the ``coyote's'' fee for driving illegals across has jumped from $250 to $400 in the past year, Juvenal says, while the peso has dropped from 600 to the dollar to more than 1,300.

``Given the new law, and the costly passage,'' he says, ``it's no surprise people are staying in Mexico.''

On this particular evening, action is brisk. Not 10 minutes after nabbing the first eight illegals, Demore is racing after the green and white van. It looks as though the vehicle contains only a driver and a companion until the sirens cause 18 illegal immigrants hiding on the floor to lift their heads. This time the driver isn't so fortunate. A half mile from the border, the engine blows. In a last-ditch sprint across the knee-high wheat, he and his accomplice are run down on foot by Demore and George Shoen, another agent. Although six others escape, the agents relish capturing the driver.

But as the driver sits bloodied and silent through interrogation, others in the holding cell seem unruffled by their encounter with la migra - the Border Patrol.

One hopeful immigrant vows to return later that night. Asked if he was worried about being caught again, he laughs as though it were just a game. ``If it weren't for us, la migra wouldn't have anything to do.''

Later, hearing the immigrant's comment as he drives across a high mesa, Demore nods in agreement. ``They are still pouring through. But my job is to catch aliens. I just do the best I can and try not to get discouraged.''

The world seems still as two coyotes cross the road, creating silhouettes against the orange sky. Far below the mesa's southern-most ridge, dozens of ant-sized figures gather in a shadowy canyon. They are undocumented immigrants, plotting strategies for eluding la migra on their way to the fields and cities of California.

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