The hills behind Diane Jacob's ranch home are etched with gullys, dotted with Flintstone-sized boulders and gnarly oak. Except for a few neighboring ranches and crossroad towns, the rugged terrain looks fit for a Lone Ranger movie.
But the figures that keep popping out from behind bushes and rocks are not the feather-topped Indians from westerns of yesteryear. They are bands of illegal immigrants, usually in groups of 10 to 110, led by south-of-the-border smugglers.
After major crackdowns in recent years in larger towns along the US-Mexican border from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, rural communities like these are the new battleground between US border agents and Latin Americans seeking economic fortune in the United States. This 85-mile stretch of mesquite and scrub oak in east San Diego and Imperial Counties, and south Texas, have been the two most impacted regions, immigration officials say.
Directed by networks of high-tech "coyotes" - highly paid escorts who reconnoiter via radio and night-vision goggles - the illegals are guided to "staging areas," where vans and pickup trucks appear to whisk them away to all points North. Eighty-five thousand were caught last year. Somewhere between 85,000 and 500,000 more got through, Border Patrol officials estimate.
"It's an outright invasion and it's terrifying," says Ms. Jacob, a San Diego county supervisor who has trumpeted the issue all the way to the White House. A resident here for 25 years, Jacob says the situation has ruined the tranquil life for locals who no longer feel safe from foreign visitors - many who carry weapons and others who tote backpacks filled with drugs.
"You never know when you're going to look up and see 40 Mexicans standing in your backyard," adds Donna Tizdale, a rancher 30 miles to the east who has counted more than 12,492 illegals on her 140-acre ranch since January. That figure, however, is disputed by Border Patrol agents who say they have cut arrests along the San Diego County border in half - from 18,847 to 9,130 - over the past year.
But Ms. Tizdale shows visitors the tell-tale signs, from discarded water bottles to used sardine cans and sleeping bags. Miles of barbed-wire fences are stretched or cut, growing fields trampled, gardens destroyed. Neighbors say several watchdogs have been killed, as well as cattle and poultry.
A case of intended consequences
Whatever the actual numbers, immigration officials as well as those who monitor immigration issues say the new invasion of rural areas by illegals is an expected, even intended, consequence of crackdowns that began in 1994.
Operations such as Gatekeeper in San Diego, Safeguard in Arizona, and Rio Grande in Texas and New Mexico all dramatically increased the number of Border Patrol agents and equipment - from new cars to night-vision scopes, fencing, and lights.
Such increases - including a boost from 100 to 500 agents along the California border - were intended to push illegal traffic away from urban areas, where migrants could escape in minutes into neighborhoods and commercial districts. Rural terrain, the thinking went, would give Border Patrol agents more time to chase down and apprehend illegals.
"To say they underestimated what would happen ... is a giant understatement," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington. "They also failed to properly educate these residents, as well as all Americans, that such consequences were likely. These residents have been taken completely by surprise."
The consequences have included more than fear and inconvenience. Supervisor Jacobs produces documents from local and state auditors noting the dramatic rise in brush and forest fires started by abandoned campfires. The costs of such fires, added to those of medical costs for immigrants who are injured and treated, by law, in local hospitals, is $228 million, she says.
Relief on the way?
National and local Border Patrol agents say they sympathize with such residents. They maintain that they themselves were not adequately prepared for the amount of smuggling that has been pushed East. Some say privately that the numbers may be as high as 850,000.
But they hold that conditions are improving weekly and will soon push illegals further East until border fencing is completed along the entire US-Mexican border. A satellite operation to San Diego's Operation Gatekeeper opened this month in El Centro, adding 133 agents to the 180 that already patrol the 72-mile border of Imperial County. And because of complaints like those of Tizdale and Jacobs, new checkpoints on main roads Rte. 94 and Rte. 8 have been able to slow the northward flow of illegals via vans and trucks.
"The light is at the end of the tunnel," says Randy Clark, Border Patrol agent in El Centro. "In the past, we didn't have the resources. Now, more than at anytime in a decade, Congress, the White House, the INS, and the American public are all united with one cause as well as resources."
Border Patrol efforts here have been hindered by cutbacks in funding for the National Guard, which is charged with building the 10-foot-high fence and all-weather road that lines the border. A 10-mile gap remains in San Diego County. Only two of 72 miles have been built in neighboring Imperial County.
"Our budget keeps getting slashed, so I'm never sure if I'm going to have the same 150 men working with me tomorrow or half that," says Capt. Wade Rowley, commander of the California National Guard's counter-drug program.
Big holes in America's fence
In the meantime, illegals keep coming - as well as disputes about their numbers. Publically, Border Patrol agents say the 85,000 apprehensions in the East San Diego/Imperial County sector so far this year represent 50 percent of total traffic. Privately, many hold that number is only one-tenth of what actually gets through.
"The numbers of illegals here is a political football," says Tizdale. "Congress and the Border Patrol want to placate the public [by saying] that something is being done. But once these illegals get into the interior they are home free, with jobs waiting."
Indeed, say national observers, until the lure of jobs in the United States is mitigated with stronger enforcement of employer sanctions, or improved economic conditions in Mexico, the flood of illegals will continue in some form.
"To be fair, the INS and Congress do have a plan to stop this," says Rosemary Jencks, senior fellow at CIS. "Unfortunately, stories such as the Tizdales' and Jacobs' are what is necessary to keep pressure on both of them to uphold funding commitments."