LIVING ON THE EDGE
MARCH 19, 1996
Wednesday, the House begins debate on a bill designed to control both legal and illegal immigration. Jeffrey Kaye, of KCET-Los Angeles, reports on efforts by the U.S. Border Patrol to curtail the illegal flow of immigrants along the U.S.- Mexico border.
JEFFREY KAYE: U.S. efforts to control the Southwest border with Mexico have taken on distinctly military themes in the last three years. Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas; Operation Safeguard in Nogalis, Arizona; and most recently, Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, California, have dramatically raised the profile of the U.S. Border Patrol. Commissioner Doris Meissner, the head of the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service, says the commitment of resources is unprecedented.
DORIS MEISSNER, INS Commissioner: We believe that we are getting control of the border in a way that has never happened before. It's harder to cross that border than it ever has been in history.
JEFFREY KAYE: This year's budget for the Immigration Service, $2.6 billion, is 72 percent above the level three years ago. Two thousand new agents have been deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border, along with high-tech equipment and new vehicles.
RON HENLEY, U.S. Border Patrol: We have 14 miles of fence right now.
JEFFREY KAYE: Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Ron Henley is assigned to the San Diego sector, which stretches 66 miles East from the Pacific Ocean. Henley says the intent of concentrating resources along this area is to force border crossers to more remote areas.
RON HENLEY: It becomes mountainous and very extreme. I don't know what the elevation is. It's over 4,000 feet, though.
JEFFREY KAYE: South of San Diego, a fleet of new Ford Broncos cruises a network of freshly-carved dirt roads. The 14-mile-long fence snakes through canyons and extends 340 feet into the ocean. At nighttime, church bells from neighboring Tijuana in Mexico ring out across hills dotted with Border Patrol agents and high-tech gear.
JEFFREY KAYE: Do these people have a prayer?
RON HENLEY: No, I don't believe so, not with all the detailed units that we have out here.
JEFFREY KAYE: Infrared scopes give field agents night vision. Technicians at the communications center monitor 500 ground sensors able to detect movement. Outside, bright lights illuminate five miles of border.
RON HENLEY: Now, these lights, you look back behind the lights, you can't see anything, so you may have agents behind the lights sitting back there, but you're blinded basically by these stadium lights.
JEFFREY KAYE: The goal, according to Henley, is to eliminate the cover of darkness.
RON HENLEY: Aliens will tell you that if you take away the night, you've taken away a big advantage.
JEFFREY KAYE: As illegal border crossers are captured, agents enter their fingerprints and photos into a computer database. But for its extra resources, the Border Patrol cannot say for sure what impact it's having on illegal immigration.
GUARD: We can only tell you about the apprehensions that we make. We can't tell you about what gets by us.
JEFFREY KAYE: There have been, on average, 1/2 million apprehensions a year in the San Diego area over the past decade. The arrests peaked during March and April.
SPOKESMAN: Fifteen or twenty just came across the fence about half hour ago.
JEFFREY KAYE: As a group?
SPOKESMAN: In different groups.
JEFFREY KAYE: Apprehension numbers can be deceiving. Often the same people are captured repeatedly. These two women, hoping to get to San Francisco, had been trying for a week.
JEFFREY KAYE: How many times have they caught you?
JEFFREY KAYE: So this is your fourth time in a week?
JEFFREY KAYE: U.S. agents stand guard as people gather daily on the other side of the border, hoping to sneak across. The smugglers come here trying to find people who will pay them to take them across?
ROLANDO SANDOVAL GARCIA, Researcher: Yes, uh-huh.
JEFFREY KAYE: Rolando Sandoval Garcia is helping to conduct a Mexican study of illegal immigration. He and other researchers interview would-be migrants. Sandoval Garcia says that U.S. border enforcement has made illegal crossing more difficult and more expensive.
ROLANDO SANDOVAL GARCIA: One year or two years ago, it was about $300, $350. Today, it's between $400 and $500.
JEFFREY KAYE: The fee?
ROLANDO SANDOVAL GARCIA: The fee, uh-huh, to get to Los Angeles.
JEFFREY KAYE: Jorge Bustamante directs the research. Bustamante is president of Mexico's Research Institute of the Northern Border. He says the main effect of the U.S. crackdown at the border has been political.
JORGE BUSTAMANTE, Research Institute of the Northern Border: You have seen the politics. I see the reality by doing the research at the border. I see that undocumented immigrants continue crossing to the United States, that I see Americans continue hiring undocumented immigrants. That's the reality. Of course, the Border Patrol gives you a show, because that's part of any bureaucracy. Any bureaucracy wants to persuade everybody else that it's essential for the life of whoever is supposed to serve.
JEFFREY KAYE: Illegal immigrants comprise some 50 percent of California farm workers, according to Russell Williams, president of Agricultural Producers, a trade group. Williams says as far as he can tell, stepped up border enforcement has had little impact in the fields.
RUSSELL WILLIAMS, Agricultural Producers: It certainly hasn't stopped the flow.
JEFFREY KAYE: It hasn't stopped the flow?
RUSSELL WILLIAMS: It hasn't stopped the flow.
JEFFREY KAYE: Would you know if it had?
RUSSELL WILLIAMS: Oh, yes, yeah, very quickly.
JEFFREY KAYE: How?
RUSSELL WILLIAMS: Well, within a relatively short period of time you'd see a short supply of labor and harvest, particularly, in some of the pruning crops. We would be unable to harvest all of the crop. You'd certainly be able to harvest part of the crop with the domestic work force.
JEFFREY KAYE: And you haven't seen a shortage?
RUSSELL WILLIAMS: We haven't seen it.
JEFFREY KAYE: So when the administration claims to have gotten control of the border, what would be your response?
RUSSELL WILLIAMS: I'd say it's related to next November.
WOMAN: Go Pat, go, Go Pat, go!
JEFFREY KAYE: Election year pressure to further step up the border crackdown has come from Presidential Candidate Pat Buchanan and his supporters, particularly in California.
MAN: I'll be damned after all the years of service in the military I'm going to give over my country to them.
JEFFREY KAYE: Groups like this one, Voice of Citizens Together, have become increasingly passionate about illegal immigration. Glenn Spencer complains the U.S. has not devoted the resources necessary to stop illegal immigration.
GLENN SPENCER, Voice of Citizens Together: The President sent 25,000 troops over to Bosnia in the face of criticism. Do you think he would get criticism if he sent a lot of resources to our border? Absolutely not. Do you think he would face criticism if he spent three or four or five billion dollars? No, he would be applauded, and yet, he doesn't do it.
JEFFREY KAYE: The fact is the United States, mindful of labor needs as well as relations with Mexico, has traditionally been reluctant to be seen as militarizing the border. This fence does not seem terribly intimidating. I mean, a kid can get over this fence.
RON HENLEY: I've seen some very old women get over that fence. Again, the fence was never put there to keep foot traffic out. It certainly slows them up, but it doesn't keep 'em out.
JEFFREY KAYE: Some might say if you were serious about this, the fence would be higher than ten feet, and you'd have barbed wire on top of that fence.
RON HENLEY: I don't know if you'd want to put a fence up described like that with a neighboring country--that's--Mexico is a neighbor of ours, and, uh, I think that may be a little intimidating and a little bit unappealing to our neighbor.
JEFFREY KAYE: For her part, asked flat out whether the United States should stop illegal immigration, INS Commissioner Meissner was circumspect.
DORIS MEISSNER: Illegal immigration needs to be prevented, deterred, managed. We have a very--the Clinton administration has a very high ambition where this issue is concerned. We want the border to exhibit the rule of law. We want to put the amount of resources at the border that are required to control illegal immigration. As to stopping illegal immigration, I'm not sure anybody knows what stopping illegal immigration actually is. What we are doing and we need to do as a nation is reduce illegal immigration, reduce the job incentives.
JEFFREY KAYE: Besides increased border enforcement, Meissner has pledged stronger action against U.S. employers who hire illegal immigrants. She shares the common belief that as long as the income disparity between the U.S. and Mexico continues, so does the lure for would-be illegal immigrants tempted to cross the border by the promise of economic betterment.