New troops at US border, but the task is vast

Spc. Anthony Maielli of the National Guard is posted in the back of a pickup truck, parked on a San Diego hill called Arnie's Point. He points the lens of a giant infrared scope, which will allow him to see when darkness falls, south over the US-Mexican border.

"We're here to be another set of eyes and ears for the border patrol," says the guardsman. He is one of 4,500 reinforcements who have arrived since mid-May to help seal the 1,920-mile swath of the land stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. His role: Spot illegal border-crossers and alert the border patrol.

Four hundred miles east and 150 miles south into Mexico, the former mayor of Altar – a dusty nexus for northern-bound migrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America – sums up his view of the US buildup with a shrug.

"If they stood shoulder to shoulder, we would fight our way through the gap between them," says Francisco Garcia Arten, now a migrant activist, his tone more matter-of-fact than defiant. "And if they built a wall 50-feet high, we would bring ladders that were 51 feet."

Both sides in the long controversy over illegal immigration know the drill. US determination to prevent unauthorized entry by building walls and adding agents is met by an equal determination to get around them.

Since the advent of Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego in 1994, America has seen Operation Rio Grande (1998) in south Texas and Operation Safeguard (2002) in Arizona. With President Bush's Operation Jump Start, which aims to deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to the four border states, the total number of US enforcement personnel on the southern border will be at least 15,000 – four times what it was in 1994.

The question now is, will this latest US crackdown be enough?

In more than two dozen interviews along the border from San Diego to Altar, a common sentiment emerges: Twelve years of stepped-up border enforcement has not stopped illegal immigration from Mexico, and this latest effort seems poised to repeat the familiar pattern of action and reaction.

Even eager enforcers – like National Guard Sgt. Miguel Mendoza of California, who volunteered to serve on the border after seeing Mr. Bush announce Operation Jump Start in May – are awed by the enormity of the challenge. "You don't really understand what the border patrol is up against until you get out here and see this terrain," he says.

* * *

The view from the border differs markedly from the view in Washington, where border patrol Chief David Aguilar on Tuesday offered his first assessment of the impact of the National Guard's contribution. His summation: It's helping – a lot.

Comparing the 69 days since Bush unveiled Operation Jump Start with the 69 days that preceded it, Mr. Aguilar said "our apprehensions are down by 45 percent." The border patrol sees that drop-off as a good thing – as an indication that fewer crossings are being attempted. Some of the decrease can be attributed to summertime, when sun and burning deserts act as natural deterrents to border-crossers, he acknowledged, but not all of it. "The downward trend is, in fact, positive, it's real, and it's impacting."

Since October, overall apprehensions are down 2 percent, Aguilar reported.

Quantifying the Guard's impact is difficult, because the soldiers and airmen are not permitted to apprehend illegal immigrants. They play a supporting role – manning computers and checkpoints, building roads, lighting, and fences. But the border patrol offers this evidence:

•The Guard presence has allowed 250 border patrol agents to move from "nondirect enforcement duty" to the border, Aguilar said.

•National Guard personnel have spotted 1,557 border-crossers, resulting in apprehensions by border agents, says Xavier Rios, a border patrol spokesman in Washington.

•They have played a part in seizing 50 vehicles, 13,278 pounds of marijuana, and 201 pounds of cocaine, says Mr. Rios.

Those who have watched the immigration debate for years take the statistics with a certain grain of salt. They note that the border patrol plays it both ways, claiming to be an effective deterrent when apprehensions are down and an effective law enforcer when apprehensions are up.

"This buildup is not decreasing migration at all," adds Katherine Rodriguez of Derechos Humanos. "Claims by the US border patrol that this increased manpower does have an effect fits a pattern in which they implement some new strategy or idea when there is already a natural lull in migrant activity and then claim credit for it."

The one thing that can be said of the long US effort to curtail illegal immigration, they say, is that it has made crossing the border more dangerous.

* * *

"Migrants used to be pouring through this area," says Robert Wilkins, a 20-year resident of Jacumba, Calif., a few miles inland from San Diego. "Now it's pretty much shut off."

The shut-off came with 1994's Operation Gatekeeper, when the Border Patrol built a single wall about 15 miles inland, dramatically slowing the daily traffic of hundreds of migrants through San Diego's backyards and streets.

In the past few weeks, 900 California National Guard troops have been deployed here for a range of support tasks – including finishing a second wall, parallel to the first one, and grading the road that runs between them. The number of National Guard in California will peak at about 1,100 in the next week, officials say.

Elsewhere, other projects in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas helped to seal off the more-populated border areas.

But as migrant numbers dropped in urban locales, they increased in rural regions on either side. As a result, the vast Tucson sector in Arizona is the most porous stretch of the US border.

In this sector, migrant apprehensions are up for the year, from 338,000 last year to 369,500 this year, say National Guard and border patrol spokesmen. Interdictions of illegal drugs are up from 409,000 pounds last year to 569,400 pounds this year, they add.

They cite the additional manpower of the guard. "These added apprehensions have come with the help of the National Guard, which has helped build infrastructure and free up the number of border patrol agents from other office and work duties to be able to spend more time on patrol, where they can have a bigger effect," Jesus Rodriquez, spokesman for the border patrol's Tucson sector, said last week.

But human rights activists and some residents say history shows that increases in some sectors mean decreases in others, as those who try to enter the US shift their travel corridors to evade law-enforcement officers. Apprehension numbers do not tell how many migrants got through, they say, and the larger picture is that migration continues unabated.

"This is basically a game of funneling migrants to different, more dangerous areas," says Erica Dahl-Bedine, spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services in Tucson, which monitors migrant activity.

Residents in rural areas from Yuma, Ariz., to the New Mexico border echo those views.

"This area used to be relatively free of migrant crossings ... now we see backpacks, clothes, bottles left everywhere," says Eric Schuster, a 16-year resident of Gila Bend, Ariz. "[Migrants] are really overrunning this area. It has definitely escalated in recent years and gotten out of hand."

"We have not seen any change in the activity of migrants crossing our farm because of the National Guard buildup," says Dawn Garner, a rancher who lives in Naco, Ariz., near the New Mexico border. She reports a steady flow of between 20 and 80 immigrants a day across her property over the past two years. "This has had no discernible effect on slowing illegal immigration here."

As illegal immigrants have channeled into rural areas, one result has been rising numbers of deaths in the desert. Arizona saw a record 473 deaths last year – and human rights groups say that statistic is probably a fraction of the actual number, because many deaths go unreported.

"It is not a stretch to conclude that the real number could be twice that," says Erica Dahl-Bedine of Catholic Relief Services. "More and more migrants are reporting to us they have encountered dead bodies or skeletons – the evidence of migrants being left behind because they could go no further."

In Pima County, 80 corpses have been recovered this year compared with 60 by this time last year. Nearly 100 lie unclaimed in refrigeration units that officials have had to rent because regular facilities have been overwhelmed.

The larger picture shows a slightly improving trend line. In his report Tuesday, the border patrol's Aguilar said deaths so far this year are down nationally about 7 percent over last year. The Tucson sector, where the numbers are highest, has seen a 29 percent decrease in fatalities, he said – 120 versus last year's 169.

The arduous crossing, some say, has led more illegal immigrants to stay in the United States once they've reached it – rather than return to their home countries. It's a key reason, they assert, for the fact that between 1l.5 million and 12.5 million undocumented migrants now live in the US – up from between 3.5 million and 5.5 million in 1986.

* * *

South of the border, in Altar, Mexico, Mr. Garcia, the former mayor, steps to a map of Mexico on the wall of Centro Communitario de Attencion al Migrante y Necesitado, a community center that counsels migrants headed north.

Altar was a nearly empty crossroads just five ago, but has now become a daily hive of overloaded vans, buses, coyotes (guides), and supplies – from boots and walking shoes to water and backpacks – that migrants will need when they try to cross the US border. He points to dozens of departure locations 90 miles further north. According to migrant activist groups on both sides of the border, Altar is the Grand Central Station of migrants from every part of Mexico and Latin America, headed north by the thousands.

Garcia points to areas of Chihuahua to the east, saying clones of Altar will pop up south of whatever US border areas are perceived as the toughest to guard, regardless of how foreboding the territory is for migrants to cross.

A counselor, adviser, and observer for this swell of humanity for the past five years, Garcia has kept close watch on the US debates over immigration, noting the contrary approaches of bills in the US Senate and House, massive demonstrations by immigrants' rights supporters in major US cities, and summer hearings by Congress. A morning check of the Internet tells him that 700 of 900 National Guard troops have been deployed in California.

"Your president is basically playing with both sides during an election year, giving a little to the anti-immigrant movement and a little to those who are in favor of immigration," he says. "We know America is divided over this issue and that no legislation will happen before the election."

A short walk away, in the small town square where migrants arrive from the south in buses and vans to meet their guides for border crossings, migrants show either a vague awareness of the American border buildup, or none at all. In either case, there seems to be little consideration of changes of plan.

In groups of five to 10, migrants from ages 17 to 50, mostly men, sit on the edge of giant planters in the town square. Their stories are similar. Coming from poorer areas in southern Mexico such as Chiapas, Guatemala, and further south, many have spent between $500 and $1000 – and several days of travel – to make it 90 kilometers from the US border. Next, they will meet their guides, who have charged them another $500 to $2,000 to lead them across the desert into the US.

"I can make about $7 a week in Chiapas but maybe a $100 or more in a day in America," says a young man who gives his name as Elfemio, as he sits with a group of four fellow travelers outside the cream- colored Catholic church. Many have saved for months or years for the journey, and sold homes or all their belongings. Most of them have vague plans for how long they will stay, but a common dream is to work for one or two years, saving enough money to return to Mexico and start their own business.

"If you talk to migrants that are making the trek north, you find that their motives are economic – not a wish to colonize America," says Joe Nevins, a political scientist at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Most say they will send money back to their families. Two men report having wives and six children each living in Chiapas. Samuel Vasquez says he's trying to get to his family in Selma, Calif., and plans to pick fruit.

Garcia and Ms. Rodriguez note that, if anything, the border buildup will allow the coyotes who lead migrants north to charge more for the privilege, because of alleged complications and danger of apprehension.

It will also produce complications for migrants, many of whom are already diverted by groups of armed drug smugglers who want to protect their drug routes, they say.

Most migrants are not told ahead of time about the extended hardship of crossing the desert. They have given up so much to get this far that they move ahead undeterred – and many keep trying until they succeed because they have no alternative of going back.

After meeting their guides in Altar, Elfemio and his group will stand in the back of an open-topped pickup truck for 50 miles up a rutted, dirt road to a second disembarkation point just south of the border town Sasabe.

From there, they will meet their coyote and fan out left or right from Sasabe for a three- to four-day trek over desert terrain through the Buenos Aires National Forest to the east or the Tohono O'Odham Nation Indian Reservation.

* * *

At about 3:30 p.m., at a place just four miles south of the border called "la ladrillera" (the brickyard), groups of young men are huddled under old car hoods for shade, waiting for the cool of nightfall and the beginning of their journeys.

"Yes, I am afraid, but my need is greater than my fear," says Raul Gutierrez, 24, from Chiapas. Dogs bark, a radio plays Mexican music, a gust of wind turns a nearby dump of plastic water bottles into a cyclone of airborne refuse before settling back into the dirt.

It is 120 degrees in the shade.

The need, says Mr. Gutierrez, is "to make enough to eat well, and make a home."

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