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.
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.
Smugglers also have organized themselves into sophisticated, mafia-like cells run by captains and lieutenants. "Recruiters" prowl border areas, promising easy passage into the United States in exchange for cash. "Guides" lead migrants across the border. "Scouts" work the U.S. side, alerting the guides by cell phone and radio when their human "loads" might best make it through. "Load drivers" meet migrants at spots arranged in advance or on the fly. Frightened migrants leap into "load vehicles" and the drivers speed away, hoping to evade la migra, the border patrol.
Desperate to avoid detection, illegal immigrants have tried to cross the border in ways both comic and tragic. One female coyote disguised herself as a nun to smuggle at least 10 undocumented migrants into the country using a Ford Windstar van, before agents arrested her in San Diego. Agents in the El Paso border-patrol sector now are looking twice at tumbleweeds since some migrants have taken to rolling by disguised as the peripatetic bushes. "Whenever we see what looks like a tumbleweed, the first thing we try to determine is which way the wind is blowing," Agent Caleb Vidaurri told Knight Ridder. "Sometimes the wind blows one way and the tumbleweed blows the other.... It would be real funny if it wasn't so sad."
In Calexico, sadness mounts as summer burns on. The rocky canyons coyotes use as routes north broil in 115-degree heat. At that temperature, a man needs to drink a gallon of water per hour to keep from slowly dehydrating to death, said Michael O'Connor, an EMT and member of BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue), a unit that specializes in rescuing stranded migrants. But the coyotes want their human cargo to travel light and quick, Calexico agents say. Even for long trips, some coyotes tell migrants to bring only one gallon of water, plus the clothes on their backs.
In June, Agent O'Connor and colleagues from El Centro sector's BORSTAR unit three times rescued immigrants from Pinto Canyon, a scorched, unforgiving slash in the desert that leads from Mexico to U.S. Interstate 8. One group included two young mothers with two little boys, ages 2 and 3. When the boys collapsed from heat exhaustion, the coyotes abandoned them and their mothers, leaving them to die. Calexico border-patrol agents say coyotes routinely shed the weak, sick, old, and injured; agents often find skeletal remains in the desert. "The immigrants aren't human to them at all," Agent Ray Witt told WORLD. "They're a commodity."
One of the young mothers was able to pick her way out of Pinto Canyon and find help. By the time Agent O'Connor and his team hiked back in, the group had survived in the canyon for two days with no water. "We didn't think the 3-year-old was going to wake up. It was 108 degrees at 10:30 in the morning," Agent O'Connor said. "If they had stayed out there, they'd have cooked."
The deadliest human smuggling incident in U.S. history occurred earlier this year. Working by moonlight on May 14, immigration officers opened the door of a truck trailer abandoned near a south Texas ranch. Dozens of migrants leapt out, scrambled over a fence and fled across the dark savanna. But inside and around the trailer, 17 people lay dead, including a boy about 6 years old.
About 70 men, women, and children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras had paid a smuggling ring $1,800 apiece to sneak them in a refrigeration truck from Harlingen, Texas, to Houston, a five-hour trip in near-record heat. But the driver traveled for only two hours before abandoning his rig 10 miles from Victoria, Texas. As temperatures inside the airtight truck soared, the stowaways became so desperate for air that some apparently clawed away insulation in an attempt to find it. In June, U.S. attorneys indicted Karla Patricia Chavez, 25, of Honduras, and 13 others, on charges connected with the incident. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment or death.
Agent Nieto tries to balance his disdain for such coyotes with compassion for the immigrant poor. "For the most part, the migrants are just humble people trying to make a better living," he said. "It's the smugglers who are sending people to their deaths."