Human Fence Better Than Steel

Operation Hold the Line cuts illegal crossings on US-Mexico border by ten-fold

JUST swimming the 50-foot-wide Rio Grande is not enough to enter the United States illegally.

At the de Vargas border sector here, an illegal also has to hike up a steep concrete embankment, scale a 10-foot fence, negotiate a swiftly flowing canal, climb another fence, and then dash across a busy border highway.

Yet thousands used to do it daily - even Mexican maids - a testament to how badly they wanted to come. Lately, however, the numbers have dropped dramatically.

Where physical barriers have failed to stem the crossings, a human curtain apparently has.

Operation Hold the Line, the 18-month-old effort aimed at reducing illegal entries by putting more agents on the border, has cut down on the number of crossings from 10,000 a month to about 1,000, according to Silvestre Reyes, chief Border Patrol agent for the El Paso, Texas, sector of the US-Mexico border.

Now even more manpower is being thrown at the problem. US Attorney General Janet Reno last week unveiled plans to further expand patrols at various points along the US-Mexican border. San Diego will get 200 new agents. El Paso will get 65 of the 300 new agents stationed in Texas.

Mr. Reyes had wanted 200 new patrols alone. But Ms. Reno said the success of Hold the Line could lead to a surge in illegal crossings elsewhere - which has been one of the criticisms of the initiative - and thus the new agents are being spread along the border.

Ms. Reno also promised to give the border patrol high-tech equipment worth $258 million over a five-year period. For one thing, the equipment will cut by more than 80 percent the time spent on some paperwork. A fingerprint-identification system will allow agents to determine if an illegal immigrant was apprehended previously while trying to enter the US at a different point.

The latest announcement by Reno gives the Clinton administration added visibility on an issue of rising concern to many voters. The frustration with illegal immigration was dramatized by passage of California's controversial Proposition 187, the voter initiative that cuts services to illegal immigrants.

Republicans, newly in control of Congress, have promised to tighten immigration laws, though immigrant-rights groups see the more conservative trend on such issues - including the crackdowns along the border - as xenophobic.

The tougher policing also comes at a time when more illegals could soon be coming. Some analysts warn that Mexico's economic problems, principally the 40 percent plunge in the value of the peso, may lead to another surge in border crossings.

Patrolling the sandhills

Catching whoever does try to come north falls to people like supervisory border-patrol agent Al Hibbert, who, on this evening, is steering his four-wheel drive vehicle - without headlights - over the bumpy sandhills west of El Paso.

``We never really had enough people to do the job by our own admission,'' says Mr. Hibbert. Perhaps two-thirds of the illegals used to get through, he says. Now, with Hold the Line, the ratio of successful crossings is lower.

The sandhills area is the most active for agents in Hold the Line. Thieves sometimes jump onto trains and pilfer the boxcars, throwing the contents out the door to retrieve later. And bandits armed with Uzis prey on Mexicans who make a pilgrimage to a mountaintop shrine overlooking the border. But not tonight.

Before Reyes took over on July 4, 1993, the border-patrol agents in El Paso sat in cars or on apartment rooftops in neighborhoods a few blocks from the border in order to catch illegals after they entered. The routine had stayed the same during Hibbert's 17 years of patrolling the border.

Agents play scarecrow

``There were foot chases across back yards,'' Reyes comments. That led to friction with El Paso residents, as did the difficulty of identifying illegals in a city that is 70 percent Hispanic.

Reyes made a big change. He placed the agents right on the border where would-be entrants could see them. The theory was they would be a deterrent.

``Within three days, we realized we had a strategy that worked,'' Reyes says. Since Hold the Line costs no extra money, ``it's permanent.''

Though more effective, agents complain that playing scarecrow is not as much fun as pursuits on foot.

``A lot of the younger boys are frustrated,'' says agent George Crews a few afternoons later, as he eyes the Rio Grande from his Border Patrol truck. ``They want to see some action.'' But for an older officer like himself, ``this is a big break.''

Further up river, new patrol agent Kathy Loeffler wishes for something more exciting to do than keep her Suburban parked in the shade. ``I'm patient,'' she sighs.

There's little other sound. The wind rustles the brittle, eight-foot-high reeds at the edge of the river. Mexican children on the other side gaily hail her. ``La Migra! La Migra!'' Ms. Loeffler smiles and waves back.

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