Copyright 1996 Harper's Magazine Foundation, Harper's Magazine, Vol 293, No 1754

Masters of the Game
How the U.S. protects the traffic in cheap Mexican labor

By: Wade Graham

On May 2, the U.S. Senate appeared to take a decisive and historic stand voting by an all but unanimous margin of 97-3 to turn back the tide of illegal immigrants washing over our shores. Soberly titled the Immigration and Financial Responsibility Act of 1996, the bill passed in a glow of applause and self-congratulation punctuated here and there by bursts of outright bravado, as when the bill's sponsor and chief booster, Republican senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, told the press, "We have stuff in there that has everything but the rack and thumbscrews for people who are violating the laws of the United States."

The bill set forth a program of grave and purposeful action: it would allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to hire some 4,700 additional U.S. Border Patrol agents over the next five years, nearly doubling the forcer's current strength; it would stiffen the penalties faced by those who smuggle aliens across our borders or who falsify documents to make their way easier, it  would make it more difficult for those here illegally to gain employment; and, although somewhat short of Senator Simpson's rack and thumbscrews, it would at least hasten the deportation of aliens who have committed crimes in the United States.

The senators intended to show the populace, by their feat and their demeanor, that they meant business when it came to protecting the border, and as such the vote was duly reported, on the front pages of the nation's newspapers, as the momentous occasion it was meant to resemble. Yet in all likelihood the bill's effect on our southern border will be no more tangible than the effect the three dissenting senators had on the fate of the bill. In fact, as of this writing it is uncertain whether the measure will ever become law. First it must be reconciled with a similar bill in the House granting states the right to deny public education to illegal immigrant children, and President Clinton has indicated that he will veto any such motion-which may well be what his opponents want him to do. This, after all, is an election year, and when the Republicans hold their convention next month in San Diego, a border town, they could, if Clinton vetoes the bill, point toward nearby Tijuana and ask, with all the bombast that normally attends such questions, why the President has been so weak on, and wrong-headed about, the issue of illegal immigration. Should the bill indeed undergo the necessary revision and pass into law before the convention, all the credit-taking in San Diego will be but a faint memory by the time everyone else learns what many of the senators already know--that the Immigration and Financial Responsibility Act of 1996 will not, by itself, significantly alter the dynamic of illegal immigration and was never actually meant to.

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The reasons for this are as old as our century-long thirst for cheap labor and as recent as today's currency-market fluctuations. Between November 1994 and February 1995, the Mexican peso was devalued by 73 percent, impoverishing millions. Since that time, the Mexican economy has shown little resilience: annual inflation is now approaching 50 percent and nearly a million jobs have been lost. As Mexico's agriculture modernizes--a process accelerating under 1994's North American Free Trade Agreement--millions are being forced off the land and into cities already choked with the unemployed. With a population of 95 million, over half of whom are under the age of twenty-five and are now or will soon be entering the labor force, the country has been estimated to need a million new jobs each year simply to maintain what poor level of employment exists today. Until such time as this miracle occurs, many Mexicans will continue to go where jobs are being created for them, and that will mean crossing the border.

Which, from the senators' informed perspective, is fine. They have been well aware since Pete Wilson rebounded from a near-fatal 23-point poll deficit to win the 1994 California gubernatorial race with a simple promise to crack down on illegal immigration that American voters put great stock in the notion that our borders must be protected. But the senators are equally aware that any honest attempt to dam the flow of poor migrants into the United States may be an ill-considered career move. No small number of them owe their seats to the patronage of right-wing manufacturing and agribusiness interests desirous of nothing so much as a low minimum wage and unfettered access to cheap, nonunion labor from the Third World. Hiding behind the curtain of a mostly left-leaning coalition of immigrant advocate groups that takes a perversely parallel stand on the border issue, these interests have been free to bellow out their demands every July 3, using the Wall Street Journal's editorial writers as their mouthpiece: "If Washington still wants to 'do something' about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders." To our legislators this is already the de facto law of the land for they know that illegal immigration is only epiphenomenally an issue of law enforcement; it is fundamentally a labor-market event. And they know that labor-market events also can decide elections.

In this light the Immigration and Financial Responsibility Act of 1996 is best understood not as a palliative but as a gambit, just as the issue it supposedly addresses is best understood not as an ailment but as a game--one part cat-and-mouse and one part chess. The players sit hunched attentively over the board in Mexico City, where a porous border is rightly seen as the relief valve the regime desperately needs if it is to remain in power, and in Washington, where the back-hallway pressures to keep the border open must be reconciled with the political need to appear to be closing it. And while the larger moves are made from these two cities, the rules of the game are more clearly seen from the


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vantage of the board itself, where the pawns--men and women in green uniforms, and other men and women in clothing torn or wet from their crossing-check, capture, and evade one another in the dark.


I first began to sense the complexity and magnitude of the game last January, when, in the chaparral-covered mountains of east San Diego County, a young agent named Sergio Pimental took me on a Saturday-night "ride-along," as the Border Patrol terms the tours of its workplace that it provides reporters. We were cruising up a dirt road in the rugged, rural El Cajon station area of the patrol's San Diego sector, heading for a place called McAlmond Canyon to "lay in" for a group of illegal aliens who had tripped one of the patrol's sensors! as they crossed the border about three miles south of us. As we rolled up the last few hundred yards before the top of the canyon, Agent Pimental turned off the lights of his green and white Bronco and explained that the sensor, buried /in the dirt of a narrow trail, had recorded six "hits," which could indicate six people heading our way or many more. He expected that the group would follow a switchback trail that led from the border over the steep flanks of two peaks before emptying out into a grove of oaks at the mouth of the canyon in front of us, a "lay-up spot" used by alien smugglers to rest their groups. The walking time from the border to the lay-up spot could be as little as forty-five minutes, depending on how young the people were and how fast they were moving; it had been that long since we heard the hit, and if we hadn't already missed them, we would encounter the group any moment. I wondered what we might find. Recently two agents working this same shift had been laying in after a sensor had recorded a single hit when suddenly they heard footsteps--many footsteps--and, as they had laconically described it to me, were "run over by a hundred people." The agents managed to stop twenty-five of them, mostly the stragglers, but were beaten up pretty badly in the process.

Now Agent Pimental handed me a flashlight and whispered not to turn it on. Then he adjusted his pistol and bulletproof vest, turned, and walked away from the Bronco and into the freezing, moonless night. Before he had taken three steps he had vanished into the dim silhouette of a ridge directly in front of me. The sound of his boots scraping on the sandstone of the creek bed grew fainter, so I followed him, holding on to the flashlight with one hand and groping over the rocks with the other. We reached the oak grove, and Agent Pimental briefly shined his flashlight around, looking for signs that the group had passed through. With a stick he scratched at the remains of fires and shoe prints, and flipped over empty containers. Were they fresh? He wasn't sure.

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We might have been early or late. The group could have beaten us or cut a new trail through even more severe terrain. Or they could have been right above us on the trail, listening to us listening for them.

After standing for twenty minutes under the oaks, we began to get cold. Nothing was happening. They had beaten us, they had gotten through.

Over the radio on the way back to base, I heard the action across the backcountry: sensor hits, citizen sightings, vehicle pursuits, agents calling for backup. Later I learned that the group had made its way on foot up the valley to a dam and from there over a steep ridge line twenty-five miles from the border, where they had loaded out in getaway vehicles for points north, or west, or east--for America.

In the lore of the Border Patrol, San Diego sector, which encompasses a nearly seventy-mile stretch of our border with Mexico, from Imperial Beach on the Pacific Ocean eastward to the Imperial County line, has for decades accounted for the highest volume of illegal crossing in the country. By 1992, the year Clinton was elected, the sector's apprehensions of people attempting to cross into the United States illegally (an act, and any individual committing it, officially referred to as an EWI, or Entry Without Inspection) reached 565,581--an average of over 1,500 a night--accounting for nearly half of all apprehensions along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. (By contrast, apprehensions along the entire 3,000-mile border with Canada totaled just over 15,000 in the same year.) Estimates of the number of illegal aliens moving through San Diego each year now run as high as 1.6 million, in a city of only 2.7 million, and the Border Patrol in the sector makes more arrests than any other law-enforcement agency in the world. Within San Diego sector, the majority of apprehensions have regularly been made by agents assigned to Imperial Beach station, known as I.B., the five-and-a-half-mile run from the San Ysidro Port of Entry, at the terminus of Interstate 5, to Border Field State Park at the coast.

For decades, Mexican migrants have made the trek north to stand on the edge of the Tijuana mesa, from there to look across at the twinkling lights of San Diego and the serpentine river of headlights running through it, the migrants' yellow brick road to the bonanza of low-wage American jobs: Interstate 5. Once past la migra, as the Border Patrol is unfondly known, it is easy to blend into the residential grid of San Diego's South Bay communities, and from there to get transportation to anywhere in the United States. It has been estimated that a person's chance of being apprehended, once past the patrol at the frontier, is about 1 percent.


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I went to Imperial Beach last January because for anybody interested in a good, free show, it was always spectacular. Every day of the week, with certain seasonal variations, thousands of migrants would gather on the Tijuana mesa along the international boundary, in some spots occupying the U.S. side on high ground yielded to them by the Border Patrol. The line was rarely demarcated: in some areas a tattered chain-link fence stood, with sections bent over or cut away; in other areas a steel cable lay stretched out on the ground, a line in the sand. One flat lot in Tijuana abutting the border dubbed "the soccer field," became famous for taking on, by late afternoon, the appearance of a crowded outdoor sporting event, complete with vendors hawking tacos and drinks, counterfeit American documents, and the services of guides, called coyotes or polleros, after the pollos, or chickens, as the smugglers describe their human cargo.

As dusk fell, the commerce would draw to a close, and people would begin to take their places, as would the hopelessly outmatched Border Patrol on the slopes below. Then the people would start coming, sometimes in small groups of twos and threes, sometimes in ranks of hundreds. And they would come all night, with dusk and dawn the heaviest periods, the rush hours of the border There was no set signal for going, although a hail of rocks and bottles aimed at the nearest migra was the preferred method. Once the first step was taken, coming to America was a simple footrace. You ran, and the agents, if they'd seen you cross, ran after you, over a ridiculously dense skein of paths zigzagging through the brush, beaten hard by generations--millions--of feet. But in the several years since I had last come here, the markers that define the border--how it works, what it means, even where it is--had shifted. Imperial Beach was no longer what it once was. Appearing to reverse decades of a de facto policy of indifference, the U.S. government had built a fence.

Unveiled on October 1, 1994, with the same sort of fanfare that attended last May's Senate bill, the fence is the centerpiece of Operation Gatekeeper--the Clinton Administration's vaunted $46 million strategy to reinforce the beleaguered Border Patrol on the San Diego/Tijuana line--and is the most tangible manifestation of a larger border-enforcement buildup promised by the administration, including a 24 percent budget increase for the INS of more than $500 million in 1995. To a driver heading south from San Diego on I-5, the fence begins to come into focus a few miles from the border. In the distance it draws an irregular, rust-black line across the Tijuana mesa, underlining the crazy sprawl of Tijuana's meshed colonial, or shantytowns, receding above it. The fence first registers not as a barrier but as an impossibly long, junked freight train that begins to acquire an air of permanence as it comes into view; one might even mistake it for a geological feature. But up close it resembles nothing so much as the latest Christo project, temporary and thin, stretched across the mesa not for practical reasons but to make a point: that the line between these two nations does, in fact,exist, at least until the elections this coming November.

This is not to say that the fence fails to impress. It is actually a marvel of creative post-Cold War defense conversion: built of surplus military landing mat--corrugated-steel panels roughly eight feet square--anchored in the sandy soil, and welded together by engineers on loan from the National Guard. Beginning in the surf off of Border Field State Park (the first 100 feet posed a construction challenge that required environmental impact studies and special pilings), the fence runs nearly due east along the international boundary for fourteen miles inland to Otay Mesa, interrupted only by several canyons too precipitous to support it and, at one point, directly west of the U.S. Customs Service's Port of Entry at San Ysidro, by the concrete channel of the seriously polluted Tijuana River as it flows out of Mexico and into the United States. Below the fence, to the north, on a network of dirt access roads built by the National Guard, a fleet of new Broncos cruises continually, manned by a large portion of the total Border Patrol force assigned to San Diego sector, expanded from 992 agents in 1993 to over 1,600 now.

Like the hypothetical Christo installation it resembles, the fence is largely conceptual. It presents no great physical impediment to entering the United States. Because it was constructed with the corrugation oriented horizontally rather than vertically (an oversight, according to the INS), it is almost as easy to climb as a ladder. It has neither barbed wire nor spikes, and the loose sand that it sits on is easy to dig under. People, in fact, go over it and under it every day. For the less. agile, it is easier simply to go around. According to the INS, the fence is "a line of demarcation," meant to deter by its presence, and, true to the Clinton Administration's talent for using the media as a policy tool, a significant part of this intended effect has depended on press coverage. Since the decision to deploy Gatekeeper, Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, the Justice Department officials directly responsible for immigration, have repeatedly made high-profile appearances along the border. State Department and INS officials have mounted a worldwide campaign of broadcasts over the Voice of America and its television arm, World Net, warning potential immigrants that the United States has decided to enforce its immigration laws. And, most curiously, Alan Bersin, the U.S. Attorney in San Diego appointed in October of last year as "border czar" to coordinate Justice Department operations on the southern border, has taken to Mexico's airwaves with his own regularly scheduled, twice-weekly segments on Tijuana FM radio stations Radio Latina and X-99, admonishing potential migrants, in Spanish, not to test the United States' new determination to prosecute illegal aliens.


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"The day Gatekeeper first started," a patrol agent I'll call Hal told me (as with many of his colleagues, he agreed to speak only on the condition that I not use his name), "it was like somebody took a valve and just shut it off. And it showed you that there was a lot of hype with Gatekeeper, they put the program in the papers, especially in Mexico.... September 30, it was business as usual. You came to work the next day, it was a ghost town." Just six months after the program's inception, apprehensions in Imperial Beach had fallen an impressive 48 percent. But from a bureaucratic standpoint they had to, and, as a statistical measure, apprehensions have only limited usefulness anyway, because there is no way even for the Border Patrol to know how many people are not apprehended. The INS has publicly estimated that it is able to catch one in three EWIs, but some Border Patrol agents smile at this assessment, including one past chief of El Paso sector, the second busiest in the Border Patrol, whose personal estimate of the apprehension rate in that city was, for many years, one in ten. When I asked Dick Stulz, a veteran of San Diego sector, for his guess, he explained, "There's no way of coming up with a figure on how many are getting by us. We can only count apprehensions. If the count is up we think we're doing a good job, but when you're standing out there in the field and you're holding fifteen and you see a hundred yards away from you twenty more run by and there's no one around to get them, how effective is that?"

Administration officials, however, have pronounced, Gatekeeper a success, and crime in San Diego has indeed fallen noticeably (although, to be fair, it was falling in the five years prior to Gatekeeper too), as has border crime against migrants. The residents of Imperial Beach I spoke with have found themselves able, for the first time in years, to barbecue in their yards in the evenings without uninvited guests running across their lawns or making off with their cars in the night. Migrant traffic is so low that residents who formerly felt abandoned by the Border Patrol now complain about its Broncos cruising their streets. But has Gatekeeper really closed the door to illegal immigrants? Although apprehensions in Imperial Beach have come down dramatically, overall apprehensions in San Diego sector have not. After dropping from 531,689 in 1993--before the start of Gatekeeper--to 450,152 in 1994, they rose again in 1995 to 524,231. In the fields of California's agricultural regions, growers report no shortage of workers, and many patrol agents I talked with expressed the opinion that Gatekeeper is not all it's cracked up to be. Hal, a veteran of the Imperial Beach line, had this to say: "When I got here it was just unbelievable. I'd seen footage when I was in high school about the massive numbers going north, and I'd see one border patrolman in the middle of a hillside getting run over. When I got there it was just like that the gangs, the shootings, bandit activity, fighting, stabbings, rapes, and nobody cared. It was something out of the apocalypse. I'm not that old to have been in Vietnam, but talking to the older guys, we didn't kill anybody, but it was the

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same mentality. Our government doesn't care. We're just given enough to survive, just to show the force, and when we leave the area the aliens take over again. Then...it became somewhat hip to control the border, and to this date it's no more controlled than when I got there."


Each Border Patrol sector divides its areas of responsibility into stations, of which San Diego sector contains five frontier, or "line," stations and two interior stations. East of the Port of Entry at San Ysidro, the border continues through a five-mile section patrolled by Chula Vista station, long a hot zone of illegal crossing both because of its cover--it is deeply cut with arroyos--and its proximity to populated areas on both sides of the line. The next eight miles belong to Brown Field station, named after a small airfield on Otay Mesa, a semi-urbanized zone on the U.S. side facing a welter of colonial that have sprouted like plywood and cardboard mushrooms on the dusty hills above Tijuana. Tijuana has grown at breathtaking speed in the last few decades, fueled by trade with the United States and the migration of hundreds of thousands of people from the Mexican interior eager to work assembling products for export. One Tijuana colonia, El Nido de las Aguilas, or "Eagles' Nest," was as recently as 1980 composed of several shacks housing ten or so people. Today it boasts around 25,000 inhabitants. Northeast of the mesa lie the Otay lakes, current training site of America's Olympic rowers. To the east looms 3,572-foot Otay Mountain and, beyond it, the high peaks of the peninsular ranges, a sparsely populated region of steep, chaparral-covered canyons and inaccessible wilderness known as East County, or, to its denizens, the backcountry.

When Gatekeeper was put in place, the fence, the increased patrol presence, and the media campaign forced the flow of aliens away from Imperial Beach and out onto less traveled, less sure ground. The INS calls this the "balloon effect": squeeze in one place, and the pressure will rise in another. Gatekeeper has proven to be a remarkable demonstration of this theory. Six months after the program's launch, apprehensions at Chula Vista station had risen 207 percent; at Brown Field, 605 percent; at El Cajon, 763 percent; and at the two most remote stations in eastern San Diego county, Campo and Boulevard, fifty and sixty miles inland, apprehensions shot up 1,712 percent and 809 percent. Gatekeeper's architects knew that traffic would increase to the east, and the official rationale has been that the INS wanted to move illegal crossers away from San Diego and into terrain where they would be spread out and more easily controlled. But away from the concentrated manpower assigned to maintain Gatekeeper's high profile, the Border Patrol is spread out, too. Only 13 percent of San Diego sector's agents are stationed in the nearly seventy miles of frontier east of Chula Vista. Beyond Brown Field, no


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announcements were made to prepare local residents for what they were about to encounter. Donna Tisdale, who has lived for twenty years on an isolated ranch ten miles east of Campo and a mile and a half north of the border, found herself overrun. "Out her there's not a lot of foot traffic," she told me, "and you know your neighbors. There's always been some illegal traffic, but it was always one or two people stopping and asking for water or a day job. Since Operation Gatekeeper we started having floods and floods of people, daily visual contact with people crossing our property. It got to the point where the Border Patrol would ask how many, and if it was fewer than twenty then they'd say, 'Well, we're sorry but we've got a group of fifty over the hill we've got to go for first."'

Backcountry residents have complained of destroyed fences and water lines, and many have been burglarized repeatedly. Karl Sanders, who lives alone on forty acres overlooking the border fence at Tecate, has been broken into five times in two years and told me he counted 1,800 people coming across his land in the month of July alone. "Those are just the ones I saw with my own eyes. It doesn't count the ones that came across over other places." Many residents have woken to find people collapsed on their land, usually older women abandoned by their smugglers when they were unable to keep up. The terrain here is rugged and dangerous; temperatures in the mountains range well over 100 degrees on summer days, and on winter nights they routinely drop below freezing. Some of those abandoned were already dead by the time they were discovered.

Violence of a more immediate nature has become commonplace as well. An elderly widow named Lorna House, frustrated by her inability to keep aliens from destroying her fence, even after planting it with cactus, faced down a group of men trying to cross her land and managed to dissuade them only by peppering .22-caliber rifle fire at their feet. A resident of the hamlet of Jamul shot one of two men he surprised breaking into a neighboring farmhouse. Hiding alone in the brush along trails not far from Karl Sanders's place, Billie Jo Shepherd, a reporter for the Alpine Sun, a backcountry paper, wrote viscerally of hundreds of people passing within arm's reach, and of hearing the screams of women being raped by smugglers echoing across the valley. Many residents I talked to reported finding women's underwear strewn about on the trails used by smugglers.

The outcry has not gone unnoticed by Washington, but it doesn't look like the balloon will be squeezed in East County anytime soon. In October 1995, one year after the start of Gatekeeper, Janet Reno came to the area to have a look ad assured Shepherd, "It's extremely helpful for me to understand the border. This is an area where we can have an impact with some additional agents." On January 12, Reno proudly announced that the four sectors

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responsible for policing the 1,000-mile stretch from the Pacific to New Mexico--San Diego, El Centro, Yuma, and Tucson sectors--could soon expect to be reinforced by an almost laughable total of 200 Border Patrol agents, or one for every five miles of border.