Two US Approaches to Mexico?

Clinton's clampdown on border crossings seems at odds with push for free-trade treaty

SNAKING along the California-Mexico border, a new, formidable steel fence has gradually taken shape here during the past three years. Its purpose: to halt hundreds of drug runners and millions of illegal immigrants.

The 10-foot wall symbolizes the growing dichotomy in relations between the United States and Mexico.

In Washington and Mexico City, government officials are trying to bring their countries closer together by ratifying the trailblazing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The agreement would virtually eliminate trade impediments over the next 15 years.

In the border region, however, many local officials, lawmen, and ordinary citizens are demanding greater barriers between the two nations to halt illegal entry into the US, and to stem the flow of drugs from Mexico.

Despite the delicate negotiations on NAFTA, President Clinton has responded to growing political pressure from the Southwest by pushing ahead to finish the nearly completed 14-mile-long fence begun by President Bush.

Mr. Clinton's Justice Department has also launched ``Operation Blockade'' near El Paso, Texas, where as many as 400 additional federal border patrolmen have recently reduced illegal immigration to a trickle.

In the US, some members of Congress have asked that Clinton do even more, including deployment of the National Guard, or other military forces, to slam the door on both smugglers and illegal immigrants across the entire 1,956-mile border with Mexico.

But in Mexico, where the new California fence is denounced as America's ``iron curtain'' and Operation Blockade is deplored, left-wing protesters burned an American flag and an effigy of Uncle Sam outside the US consulate in Juarez on Sept. 24.

US lawmen praise the tougher measures, which they say are making their jobs easier.

Although gaps remain in the California fence at places like Smuggler Gulch and Goat Canyon, crime along the border has dropped sharply since construction began. Attacks aimed at border patrolmen in the San Diego sector fell from 217 in fiscal year 1991 to 132 in 1992, and 65 in 1993 as the fence has lengthened. Killings of immigrants by border bandits fell from 9-per-year before the fence to zero today.

Once the remaining gaps are filled, the US will have a solid barrier of steel from the Pacific Ocean to Otay Mountain, east of San Diego.

Resentment against heavy immigration - both legal and illegal - has escalated sharply in California during the past three years. Such sentiments now appear to be spreading to other parts of the country. Approximately 10 million new arrivals, legal and illegal, came to the US during the 1980s, and even more are expected in the 1990s.

A poll released last week found that New Yorkers, who have traditionally welcomed immigrants, are among those who are souring on newcomers.

The survey showed that by a ratio of 2.5-to-1, New Yorkers feel that immigration levels are too high. Some 56 percent even say that the Statue of Liberty's famous verse - ``Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...'' - no longer applies. The Empire Foundation in Albany and the Lehrman Institute in New York City conducted the study.

Illegal immigrants particularly raise the ire of California political leaders, such as Gov. Pete Wilson (R). The US Border Patrol regularly catches more than 500,000 illegal aliens a year in this small border zone between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains, and at least that many get through.

Steve Kean, a Border Patrol spokesman, says the new fence already is helping, however. Illegal immigration through San Diego may even have declined in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, he says.

The fence also has crimped the style of Mexico's drug traffickers, who are responsible for about 50 percent of the illegal narcotics entering the US. Before the fence, approximately 75 drug smugglers per month crashed the border in vans, cars, and pickup trucks in the desert area east of San Diego. Dangerous, high-speed chases often resulted.

The fence has changed that. Few vehicles get through illegally. Yet Border Patrolmen Clark Messer concedes that the smugglers are persistent.

On a tour of the border east of San Diego, Mr. Messer shows a reporter where smugglers have cut a huge hole in the fence with a welding torch. Their tactic is then to put the metal back in place with duck tape, and disguise the cut with paint. Later, they return with a truck or car loaded with drugs, knock down the taped section of fence, and speed across the desert in hopes of reaching an interstate highway before they are caught.

It's uncertain how resolute Clinton will be against illegal activity at the border. But with many in vote-rich California clamoring for action, it's not an issue the president can easily ignore.

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