Hired by groups smuggling people into the U.S., the binocular-wielding informants camp out in aging bungalows on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. They track the movements of the agents.
When the agents aren’t around, immigrants take on the 18-foot fences along the border with bolt cutters or homemade rope ladders attached to grappling hooks. Or they muscle their way up the web-patterned barriers, using screwdrivers as handholds.
The agents can’t catch all of them. Some die in the unrelenting heat and rugged terrain along the nation’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Others drown in the Rio Grande. The hardier ones make their way to Georgia and other states, lured by jobs.
The young hawks are part of a desperate and sometimes deadly cat and mouse game underscoring the complexity of the debate about the nation's immigration laws. Several bills aimed at tackling this thorny problem are pending in Congress. One calls for spending more than $40 billion to add nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents, 700 miles of fencing and other security measures along the southwestern border.
Border security may be a remote concept for many Georgians, but it has elicited strong feelings here. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution telephone poll shows half of Georgians who support giving illegal immigrants legal status want border control improved first.
The southwest border is ground zero in the immigration debate. So an AJC reporter and photographer recently spent several days reporting there. They visited many stretches of the southwest border in Texas and New Mexico, interviewed two dozen law enforcement authorities in the region and reviewed numerous reports on border security. Some of the newspaper’s findings:
- The government has made a lot of progress boosting border security in the region. But it's impossible to know just how effective those efforts are. Here's why: No one knows exactly how many people are evading authorities and illegally crossing the nation's border with Mexico.
- For years, the government had been reporting a steep drop in arrests along the southwest border. But that has recently begun to change as the nation's economy has improved. By August, 11 months into fiscal year 2013, federal authorities had already made nearly 27,000 more apprehensions along the southwest border than during all of fiscal year 2012, a 7 percent increase.
- The number of people dying along the southwest border has risen over the past three years as the nation has tightened security there. The government reported 463 deaths in fiscal year 2012, up from 375 the year before. Some are dying from exposure in remote areas while attempting to evade the growing number of border authorities.
There were an estimated 425,000 immigrants living illegally in Georgia in 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Most coming to the U.S. are from Mexico.
Lary Perez is among them. The Mexican native said he paid a guide $1,500 for help illegally crossing the border just west of El Paso in 1999. He walked a few hours to a waiting car. Then he hid for eight days in Las Cruces, N.M., before catching a ride to North Georgia, where he found work in a carpet mill.
Perez now works at an automobile parts plant in Dalton. He is married and has three U.S.-born daughters. Perez said he hasn’t tried to return to his native country because of the drug-related violence on the Mexican side of the border. He hopes Congress passes legislation granting him a pathway to legal status so he can remain with his family in Georgia.
“Now it’s hard to come in. In 1999, it was easier,” he said. “The other (reason) I don’t go back to Mexico is because I’m looking for a better future for my children.”
Capt. Manion Long has a front-row seat in the national immigration debate. A former Marine, he combats border-related crime for the Sheriff’s Office in Dona Ana County, N.M., just west of El Paso. To keep people like Perez from entering the country illegally, Long said, the government must do more than erect fences and deploy Border Patrol agents. Among the solutions he cited: unclogging the nation’s legal immigration system.
“The best way is through comprehensive immigration reform,” he said before heading out one evening to observe the border in Sunland Park, N.M. “As long as it is more attractive to be here, it will be very difficult to keep people out.”
Gunbattles and inner tubes
Gravel crunched underneath George Gomez’s champagne-colored Chevrolet Suburban as he coasted along the Rio Grande in downtown El Paso. Across the river sits the Mexican city of Juarez, a gritty town long known as one of the most violent in the world.
A clean-cut Navy veteran, Gomez grew up in El Paso and worked there as a police officer before joining the U.S. Border Patrol. He remembers the bad days when illegal immigrants would brazenly float across the river on inner tubes. On the U.S. side they would amass in large groups so they could overwhelm authorities and dart into El Paso. Then there were the shootouts involving Mexican drug cartels on the Juarez side. He pointed to where stray bullets struck in downtown El Paso.
Over the years, he said, he has witnessed vast improvements here. Gomez is now among about 18,500 agents protecting the nation’s southwest border. That is nearly double the number employed in 2005. The increased presence has been a big help in downtown El Paso, he said.
Gomez’s colleagues drive white Border Patrol SUVs or patrol through town on bicycles. They station themselves atop hills overlooking El Paso, scanning the border with binoculars.
The agents also rely on about 650 miles of fences that at least slow down people seeking to enter the country illegally. There are T-shaped ones meant to block automobiles. There are also “Normandy-style” fences, metal barriers resembling the ones German soldiers used to slow Allied forces on D-Day. And then there are the 18-foot “pedestrian” fences, which have tight mesh surfaces meant to foil climbers. So far, the government has spent $2.1 billion in taxpayers’ money on fencing along the southwest border.
The agents’ tactics range from the rudimentary to the high-tech. They drag old tires behind their trucks to smooth out sand near the fences. Then they look for footprints. Others monitor feeds from video cameras perched along the border. Motion detection sensors lie hidden in the scrubby landscape.
Estimates vary on how successful these measures are. The government doesn’t know precisely how many people are illegally crossing the border, yet it has cited an 80 percent to 85 percent effectiveness rate for stopping them. The Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank that specializes in international affairs, has issued a lower estimate. In a report released in May, the council said the probability people will get caught illegally crossing the border between the nation’s legal ports of entry is likely in the range of 40 percent to 55 percent.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on that estimate, though it issued a statement saying the government has “dedicated historic levels of personnel, technology, and resources to the southwest border.”
In June, the Democratic-led U.S. Senate passed an omnibus bill that would roughly double the amount of fencing and the number of Border Patrol agents there. Critics are calling that part of the legislation a political ploy and a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Adding more detection technology and redeploying some personnel would help, said Robert Bonner, who served under President George W. Bush as the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“I hate to use the word ‘ridiculous,’ but I don’t know of any better term for it,” Bonner said of the Senate bill’s border spending provisions. “We have built up the Border Patrol to very close to and perhaps as many Border Patrol agents as we need.”
Penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants must also be part of the discussion, said Shawn Moran, at-large vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union that represents 17,000 Border Patrol agents and support staff. The Border Patrol, he said, doesn’t have enough desks and locker rooms to accommodate all the additional agents contemplated in the Senate bill. And fences have their limits, he added.
“We have a collection of hundreds and hundreds of ladders that they have made out of rebar,” said Moran, a senior patrol agent who works in the San Diego sector. “Until we really take this seriously and we cut off the reason why they are coming here, they are going to continue to come here.”
The Senate bill includes other provisions that would punish employers who hire illegal immigrants and overhaul the nation’s massively clogged legal immigration system. But the Republican-controlled House has refused to take up that bill, partly because it contains a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Dismissing that provision as “amnesty,” the House is instead taking a piecemeal approach and considering smaller and more narrowly focused immigration bills, some dealing with border security.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Border Patrol is drawing criticism for how it is using the resources it already has. The agency has been causing hours-long gaps in security by sending agents home early to save on costs amid across-the-board federal spending cuts, called sequestration, said Stu Harris, the first vice president of Local 1929 of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents agents in the El Paso area. The U.S. Border Patrol denied that.
The agency has also come under fire for stationing many of its agents at checkpoints on interstates miles away from the border. Arvin West, the sheriff in nearby Hudspeth County, Texas, said the agents “need to have their butts on the border.”
“I guess the proper terminology for their title would be Highway Patrol instead of Border Patrol,” he said, “because they spend most of their time on the highway and not on the border.”
Harris and Gomez said the checkpoints are helping catch illegal immigrants and drug smugglers who are evading authorities on the border.
“We are doing everything that we can to secure our nation’s borders,” Gomez said. “Our checkpoints are proving to be an effective secondary line of defense.”
Where the fence ends
Capt. Robert Wilson of Hudspeth’s Sheriff’s Office laughs uproariously when he’s asked about the border fences in the vast county he patrols directly east of El Paso. Hudspeth shares about 100 miles of border with Mexico. But only a small fraction of it, Wilson said, is lined with fencing. So the barriers have become a punch line about illegal immigrants.
“The smart ones walk around them,” Wilson said dryly.
Wilson recently escorted an AJC reporter and photographer to a remote part of the county’s western border with Mexico near Fort Hancock, roughly 55 miles from downtown El Paso. A tall steel fence abruptly stops there across from the Mexican town of Banderas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a statement, saying the fence doesn’t need to be longer there because it “takes advantage of the local terrain and the tactical situation.”
Wilson doesn’t believe erecting more fences is the answer. U.S. diplomats, he said, need to lean on Mexico “to take a more active role on their side of the border.”
“These folks are coming across into the United States and they are making their way up to the interior of the country — Georgia, Chicago, other places,” Wilson said. “They need to stop here on the border.”
Some don’t make it far after they have crossed. The merciless heat and Hudspeth’s craggy terrain are to blame. Wilson said he and fellow deputies occasionally find the bodies — or bones — of illegal immigrants in the county’s rattlesnake-infested deserts. He told a story about finding a twisted red scrap of T-shirt in a pile of mountain lion scat.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency is training its agents in lifesaving skills and deploying a special group of rescuers along the border.
Yovany Diaz said he narrowly avoided drowning in the Rio Grande in 2000 near Laredo, Texas, when he illegally crossed with his family into the U.S. from Mexico. Diaz, who was 8 years old at the time, now lives with his mother in Roswell and works at a local discount warehouse store.
He said he wants Congress to provide a path to legal status for immigrants living illegally in the U.S. so they may continue to live and work here. But Diaz — who has received a two-year reprieve from deportation — worries some of the border security measures in Congress could prompt more immigrants to risk crossing dangerous stretches of remote terrain.
“It was very dark. The water was cold,” Diaz said of his experience crossing the Rio Grande. “We held hands to cross over it and I slipped … and I was pretty much drowning. But I was lifted, and the next thing I know I am across the water … and I’m just happy I’m alive.”