THE residents of rural eastern San Diego County are mostly people who like their privacy and the kind of isolation from urban issues that country living can offer.
So when more than 200 of them piled into the cold, corrugated-metal garage of the Deerhorn Valley Fire Station for a public meeting on illegal immigration one recent evening, it was a measure of how important the immigration problem has become for them.
It was also an indication of the impact of a new United States Border Patrol strategy against illegal immigration on the US-Mexico border. The idea is to make crossing the border so difficult along traditional migration paths with easy access to major urban centers that illegal immigrants resort to more difficult crossing points where the patrol will have more time to stop them.
In California, that means pushing people away from San Diego, just a quick hop to Los Angeles by freeway, toward mountainous and remote eastern San Diego County. The redirection of alien flows is one element of an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) plan of action for San Diego called ''Gatekeeper.''
For the Border Patrol, the plan - referred to by some as ''squeezing the balloon'' because pressure in one spot causes a bulge in another - is working like a charm. Imperial Beach, a town between San Diego and the border, is traditionally the nation's busiest apprehension sector. Apprehensions of illegal aliens there in January 1996 were up 16 percent over January 1995.
But in some rural eastern zones, apprehensions have skyrocketed more than 1,000 percent since 1994. At the Campo, Calif., station alone, apprehensions rose from 2,500 in 1994 to more than 51,000 last year.
For the residents of Deerhorn Valley and the rest of what is called simply East County, the ''balloon'' strategy has wreaked havoc on their previously undisturbed rural lives. Chickens and eggs have been eaten by hungry aliens, homes burglarized, and fires set for keeping warm have raged out of control.
The strategy is also exposing the residents to an increasingly passionate political issue that many of them admit they had not much thought about until recently.
''If we'd had this meeting a year ago, no one would have come out for it,'' says Marcia Spurgeon, a local realtor and Deerhorn Valley School Board member. ''In that short a time, it's become such an invasion, and people are so worked up, that I'm afraid we could have some serious problems out here.''
What she means is clear enough from some of the sporadic commentary from the firehouse crowd. ''If we don't get someone down here to stop these people from coming across,'' yells one man, ''I'm gonna start shootin' 'em and calling for volunteers to pick them up!'' A deputy sheriff tells a woman she cannot legally use deadly force against a trespasser, and she fires back, ''These illegals have more rights than we do!''
When County Supervisor Diane Jacob calls for more forcefulness from Washington and notes that President Clinton was capable of decisive action in another international crisis when he sent 24,000 Marines to Bosnia, another man yells, ''Don't send them to Bosnia, send them here!''
In a few cases, events in East County already have gone beyond words. One East County resident faces charges stemming from the September shooting of a Mexican alien he says broke into his and neighboring homes. One resident was killed in a collision with a van of illegal aliens being driven by their ''coyote,'' or smuggler. And several aliens have been killed or injured in high-speed chases with the Border Patrol that ended in crashes.
The atmosphere in East County, coupled with national anxiety about reported vigilante movements around the country, has led to concerns that East County residents could decide to take the law into their own hands.
''Everyone's scared to death of some vigilante action rising up out here, but that's not going to happen,'' says Gary Young, the Campo Border Patrol station chief. ''It's just that country people take care of their own, and they're independent.''
San Diego Border Patrol Sector Chief Johnny Williams is unperturbed about the East County uproar, saying, ''They are only putting up with on a very small scale what Imperial Beach had to put up with for generations.'' But he predicts that East County will see ''improvement'' as the area's already beefed-up Border Patrol is further augmented by fresh recruits throughout 1996.
Still, Supervisor Jacobs, who represents the East County area, calls Gatekeeper ''a big flop.'' Any plan against illegal immigration ''should stop the problem right where it starts, which is at the border,'' she says, ''and not on the private property and on the public roads of this district.''
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California, who represents the area, is a longtime crusader against illegal immigration. He was instrumental in the construction of the San Diego border fence that also pushed aliens east and continues to laud that strategy. ''As in a military operation, one gives his enemy someplace to go. Someplace of one's own choosing,'' he says, ''not the enemy's.''
The ''enemy'' for many East County residents is above all the drug smugglers who increasingly use the area's rural mountain paths.
''Nobody wants to face the real problem, which is drugs and the tremendous money connected to that,'' says Mike Mikesell, a longtime Campo resident.
Whether the ''invasion'' is made up of illegal aliens passing through to a job or armed drug runners, residents here say they want it stopped. They worry that interests larger than themselves with a stake in keeping low-cost labor - or drugs - flowing, won't let that happen.
''I'd pay for a war on what is illegal activity, but I don't think the country is serious about this,'' says Fred Kamper, a public school teacher and 20-year East County resident.
''This is like Vietnam. We're not out to win a war; we're piddling around.''