CLARK MESSER spots two "illegals" strolling across a baseball diamond, about 200 yards from the steel fence dividing Mexico from the United States.
He guns the US Border Patrol Bronco, and the youths dash for an apartment complex just ahead. The cat-and-mouse game begins. The two reach the buildings before Mr. Messer and blend into the crowd. But Messer is not giving up.
"I'll be right back," he announces, jumping out and sprinting into the complex. A minute later, he emerges with the two in tow.
His easy-going manner has been replaced by a firm, authoritarian demeanor. "Sit down," he barks in Spanish. Patting the Mexican migrants down for weapons, he chides them, "Why did you run? Huh? You knew I'd catch you." They sullenly stare at the ground.
Another lime Bronco pulls up to take them back to the detention center for processing. A teenager watching yells, "It's fake. La migra don't treat them like that always. They beat them up."
Messer ignores or does not hear the comment. "They'll be out in eight hours. Yeah, they could be in L.A. by sunrise," he sighs. "The liberal media portray us as Nazi fascists violating people's rights. They overlook the amount of drugs we seize," says the six-year Border Patrol veteran. "The way I see it, illegal immigrants take jobs away from legal immigrants."
Since the construction of a controversial "iron curtain," a steel wall along most of the 14-mile Tijuana-San Diego border zone, drug seizures have soared. So far this year, the San Diego Border Patrol has captured twice as much marijuana and nine times as much cocaine as last year.
This sector is patrolled by 800 of the 3,200 agents roving US borders. By summer, the roll is expected to expand by 300 agents. Immigrants' rights groups worry that the new troops and the use of Army night scopes, helicopters, and motion sensors are turning the border into a militarized zone.
"It's frightening," says Andrea Skorepa, director of a San Ysidro social services group. "There are Army vehicles in the neighborhood. Children play polleros [smugglers] and Border Patrol instead of cops and robbers."
Messer points out the dangers involved. "Most are honest people looking for work. But when they're hiding in the bushes, we don't know who's been sniffing glue or shooting up heroin. We don't know if it's young smugglers ready for a fight."