San Diego Union Tribune

April 12, 2005

Mexican agency keeps eye on immigrants

By Jerry Kammer

AGUA PRIETA, Mexico – Hector Salazar's chases through the desert creosote and sagebrush west of here last week began like many encounters between illegal immigrants and the U.S. Border Patrol.

But Salazar works for the Mexican government. He cruises the rough dirt roads of the sprawling La Morita ranch in an orange pickup emblematic of Grupo Beta, the Mexican agency whose mission is to protect immigrants approaching the border, not to arrest them.

As he overtook a group of six young men filing north with small backpacks, he told them about the Minutemen who had taken up positions on a ridge a few hundred yards to the north, just beyond the barbed wire border fence.

"They're over there, observing you," he said, pointing to the sparks of sunlight that flashed off the cars and trucks of the volunteer civilian group that is here to spotlight what members call Washington's failure to control the border. The Minutemen waited in lawn chairs, binoculars scanning southward, cell phones ready to summon the Border Patrol.

"We recommend that you don't try to cross here," Salazar said. "The decision is yours, but it would be better to try somewhere else."

The men piled into the back of the truck for the half-hour ride back into town. It was a victory for Grupo Beta, which is under orders from Mexico City to help head off confrontations that could aggravate border tensions.

But Salazar also proved a point for Minuteman organizer James Gilchrist, who accuses Washington of failing to protect the border from illegal immigrants looking for work and terrorists looking for trouble.

"We're here to demonstrate that physical presence on the border will seal the border," said Gilchrist, who calls for a tripling of the Border Patrol to 30,000 agents.

Border expert Peter Andreas says there's nothing new to Gilchrist's claim. He says it was proven in San Diego a decade ago, when public outcry prodded Washington to mobilize Operation Gatekeeper.

"That was a high profile, in-your-face show of authority and force at the border," said Andreas, a Brown University professor and author of "Border Games," which says federal policy is as concerned with managing public perceptions as it is with managing illegal immigration.

While Gatekeeper proved successful at restoring calm "and placating voters" in San Diego County, Andreas and others are dubious about the prospects of sealing the entire 1,950-mile border. Much of it is desert valleys separated by rugged mountain ranges.

Just east and west of the San Pedro River Valley, where the Minutemen have set up lawn-chair observation posts in the last week along roads tame enough for satellite TV trucks, the mountainous terrain defies the Border Patrol's SUVs.

Even in the relative flatness of the valley, where the Border Patrol has a strong presence, smugglers often send one group forward to be arrested.

They know the paperwork and transportation will tie up agents long enough for them to send other groups right behind to rendezvous with a driver at a mile marker or near a culvert.

The traffic is intense, with the Border Patrol apprehending an average of 1,600 people a day along the Arizona line. A declaration by Robert Bonner, commissioner of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, that he had a "comprehensive strategy" to take "operational control" of the 387-mile Arizona border fell flat with Andreas.

"Ultimately it's more about domestic politics than about securing the border," he said.

He noted that immigration anxiety once confined to the border has gone nationwide over the past decade, as the nation's illegal immigrant population has soared to an estimated 10 million to 12 million.

"Suddenly, much of the United States is de facto border states," he said, an observation that explains why the Minuteman volunteers here came from across the country.

Last week, White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded to a question about the Minutemen with the claim that the Bush administration has "taken a lot of steps to better control our borders to prevent people who shouldn't be coming into this country from entering the country."

But while the administration can point to the expansion of the Border Patrol and to an array of surveillance tools, from motion sensors in the ground to unmanned vehicles in the air, virtually no effort has been made to turn off the magnet of the low-wage American workplace.

Three hours north of the Arizona-Mexico border, a few hundred yards from the interstate highway on which smugglers shuttle immigrants into Phoenix, the power of the job magnet to overwhelm border enforcement was on display Thursday morning along Avenida del Yaqui.

Two groups of illegal immigrants, there since dawn to look for a day's work, talked openly about their detours around the Border Patrol.

Hector Alvarez, 28, was surprised at how easy it was to come across near Nogales, where a smuggler charged him $1,100 for the trip to Phoenix.

"We just walked two hours" to a rendezvous with a car, he said. "Next time, I'll do it on my own."

Even in the heart of Douglas, a border town that has seen a Gatekeeper-like buildup in response to local unrest, smugglers make a mockery of the notion of "operational control."

The steel-rod border fence there is scarred by hundreds of lines of brownish-black welds, repairs to a barrier that smugglers saw through with blades they leave in the dust.

Congress' decades-long refusal to establish a reliable worker verification policy, its acceptance of a system in which immigrants use phony documents to pretend to be legal and employers pretend to believe them, keeps the exodus moving.

So last week, as a young Mexican from near Mexico City accepted a ride from Salazar after learning that the Minuteman planned to leave at the end of April, he waved at one of Salazar's colleagues and said, "See you next month."

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