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Coyote hunting

International | As Congress considers legislation to deal with undocumented workers, border-patrol agents fight smugglers who risk the lives of their human cargo

Issue: "Capitol stampede in Texas," Aug. 9, 2003

DIGGING FOOTHOLDS WITH HIS black, government-issue boots, Agent Al Nieto, a supervisor in the U.S. Border Patrol's El Centro sector, scales a 10-foot sand embankment. He's working the swing shift, patrolling just south of the All American Canal in Calexico, a tiny border town in Southern California's Imperial Valley. It's 7 p.m., but the desert air is still a baking 103 degrees.

At the top of the embankment, Agent Nieto's two-way radio crackles as he peers through dark glasses at a simmering arc of sand and desert scrub that stretches all the way to the horizon. About a quarter mile to the south is the Mexican border, defined by nothing more than an 8-inch mound of earth that runs along the southern edge of an American dirt road.

Agent Nieto is checking out a "lay-up area," a warren of brittle vegetation where illegal migrants frequently hide before making their final dash into the United States. He finds no one, but the scene before him is surreal: There in the middle of the scorching desert lay dozens of blue-and-yellow rubber rafts, flat and abandoned, their red, plastic air pumps lying broken nearby.

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This strange fleet represents success: It formed over time as border-patrol agents intercepted migrants before they could cross the canal. But every day, other migrants, most from Mexico and Central America, float across the canal, clamber over border fences, sprint through check points, stow away in vehicles, and inner-tube up the border-straddling New River, a stream thick with disease, factory chemicals, and human waste.

Last year, the federal government located more than 1 million undocumented migrants, 93 percent from Mexico. The border patrol was responsible for nine in 10 of those apprehensions, nearly all along the southern U.S. border. But for every apprehension, experts estimate that two aliens make it through. In July, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) proposed new legislation meant to balance U.S. national security and labor interests, and deal realistically with the northerly flow of migrant workers.

Under the new law, undocumented immigrants would apply with American companies for "guest worker" status, and be allowed to travel back and forth between the United States and their home country for a period not to exceed 36 months. Employers would have to prove to the Labor Department that there were insufficient U.S. workers to fill jobs taken by immigrants, and authorized "guest workers" would be given priority when seeking permanent residency. Mr. Cornyn told reporters his plan would satisfy neither those who favor strict immigration enforcement nor those who seek full amnesty for undocumented workers: "This I believe is a middle ground."

Those who favor strict enforcement applaud border initiatives such as 1998's Operation Gatekeeper, which tightened U.S. control around population centers such as San Diego. Post-9/11 clampdowns cut down further on illegal crossings at American ports of entry. But national-security concerns may not have reduced illegal crossings, just forced a change in tactics. Immigrants now are risking more dangerous crossings in more remote areas, and alien smugglers are charging them more money to lead the way. Meanwhile, the border patrol is apprehending-and rescuing-aliens who try to beat the system.

The U.S. southern border stretches 2,000 miles from Texas, west through New Mexico and Arizona, all the way to California's southernmost shore. Immigrants from Central American countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, and impoverished Mexican states like Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, stream toward the storied El Norte, "The North." Some are thugs and drug smugglers-about one in four illegal aliens the border patrol apprehended last year had a criminal record-but most are driven north by economic desperation.

As with most other immigrants, undocumented workers contribute to the U.S. economy, but there is also a price for Americans. During an era when many state budgets are operating in the red, border states suffer an additional economic drain. For example, border-state hospitals spend at least $200 million a year providing uncompensated emergency care to illegal aliens, according to the U.S.-Mexico Border Counties Coalition, an American lobbying group. (The cost to the federal government of providing such services nationally is $5 billion.) The Urban Institute estimates that 15 percent of all kindergarten-through-high-school students in California are illegal immigrants whose parents pay no taxes. Meanwhile, one in seven prisoners in the California state system is an illegal alien.

But illegal immigrants are big money to the smugglers who bring migrants into the United States. Immigrants call the smugglers coyotes, pronouncing it the Spanish way: "Koy-oh-tes." Since 9/11, the coyotes have raised their prices from around $250 to sneak a person through a port of entry, to $1,500 to $1,800 for trickier crossings, or to ferry migrants deeper into the U.S. interior.

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