IT is 6 o'clock on a Sunday evening, and from the Nogales, Ariz., primary border checkpoint the lines of cars waiting to cross into the United States stretch back as far as the eye can see. Rain, snow, or merciless sun, US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Customs agents stand on a concrete slab surrounded by the swarm of automobiles. They work eight hours a day, six, often seven, days a week, making instant decisions about whom to choose for secondary checks - on the basis of pale fingernails, sweaty palms, red ears, averted eyes, forged green cards - things they learned to look for in training.
Inside the noisy border station, agents guard the pedestrian gate or stand behind a busy counter to issue permisos.
``It's a high-pressure job, and nobody ever tells our side,'' says Carlos Ramirez, a popular INS supervisor here.
``There's just one car after another. You have to make sure they should be admitted, that they have proper documents, and at the same time, see what they are bringing into the country. You have to listen to them, see what their bodies say, and check for drugs, all in a few seconds. They could be armed fugitives. You never know what's going to happen,'' Mr. Ramirez says.
Although dangerous incidents occur, border traffic is mostly a monotonous flow of Mexican shoppers going to the Kmart, young couples dressed for a night out, and returning American tourists.
Since the Nogales port of entry is understaffed, agents routinely work weekends and holidays. They are fortunate to get one day a week off, says Ramirez, who retired from the US Army in 1976. ``Don't think I didn't look at my neighbor setting up for a barbecue with his family just as I was leaving for work. It does get to you. But it's also a very rewarding job. I love helping people and greeting travelers who come into our country for the first time.''
As he speaks, an inspector brings in a 25-year-old Mexican with a forged green card who later has to be released because no beds are available in the local jail.
Being an agent in a border city is a high-stress job, says Jesus Jerez, the inspector who just walked in. ``When I got here in 1976, the divorce rate [among the agents] was 80 percent and I was one,'' says Mr. Jerez, a supervisor filling in as an inspector. Jerez, who has since remarried, was bitten by a Mexican homosexual whom he questioned Christmas night in 1986. Now he says he has to be tested for AIDS every year for the next five years.
At ports of entry, inspectors are under the constant eye of supervisors like Ramirez and Jerez, who also answer questions and make hard judgment calls. Supervisors decide if complaints are valid, based on their knowledge of inspectors.
Despite the fact that the most frequently heard complaint against the INS and Customs is rudeness, Jerez maintains that the vast majority of inspectors are courteous and friendly. He says he screens out a lot of complaints from people he calls ``nasties - you know, loudmouths.'' Sometimes supervisors decide that complaints are valid and agents have unnecessarily oversearched, overquestioned, or harassed. ``I had one guy who had a real police attitude,'' Ramirez says. ``Although we wear a badge and a sidearm, we are not police here.''
Jerez and Ramirez say it is their job to catch things like this. In most cases, a few months of working with the agent does the trick. Sometimes supervisors decide an agent is unsuitable, and they begin the difficult task of transferring the agent.
``A lot of the job is personality,'' Ramirez says. He says he has never pulled his gun and prides himself on that.
``Remember, inspectors are only human,'' says Jerez, who has been involved in five shooting incidents. ``There's a personal and professional transference going on. If we have had a hard time with the guy before, it's hard to just wipe your face clean and start anew. It's the same in the real, civilian world.''