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


A-10 (Continued)


To see firsthand what was happening in the backcountry, I did what more and more illegal migrants do these days, which is to head east about 30 miles from Tijuana on Mexican Highway 2 to the town of Tecate, Baja California, about midway through the mountains between Tijuana and the Sonoran Desert, and the main staging point for crossing into the eastern part of San Diego County. Perhaps best known as the home of the Tecate brewery, the source of the red beer cans that carpet the shoulders of nearly every road in Northwestern Mexico, Tecate has grown frenetically in recent years from a placid mountain hamlet into a tough, impoverished border city of at least 100,000 people. Across the line in the United States, a handful of scattered dwellings, unkempt freight-company lots abutting the Port of Entry, and a convenience store share the name "Tecate, California." El Cajon sector Border Patrol vehicles move in their distinct way up and down the strangely named Thing Road, one of the town's few streets, roating forward, stopping suddenly to look around or listen, then roaring off. Loadout cars and their drivers loiter conspicuously in the convenience-store parking lot, watching la migra watching them. On either side of the busy Port of Entry, a landing-mat fence extends for about a mile before giving up. Entire sections of it are missing, including one stretch several hundred yards long that over the course of three nights last summer was taken apart from the Mexican side by men wielding sledgehammers, with, according to the Alpine Sun, "no apparent interference from anyone." On the remaining fence nearby, a graffito recommends, FUCK THE USA.

All along the fence people gather, nervously eyeing the peaks above them, waiting for nightfall. Most are young men, but there are more than a few families with small children, and some of those waiting are relatively well-dressed. No one, it seems, is from Tecate or Tijuana but from deep within the Mexican interior: Cichoacan, Zacatecas, Guerrero, Nayarit. All the people I spoke with said that they had taken the bus or walked from Tijuana, after crossing there proved to be too hard. One man told me that he had been caught six times in San Diego and had run out of money; he had no choice but to try Tecate. As dark approaches they will set off, in scattered groups, with smugglers or, if they can't afford it, without, over trails through the brush that constantly change as the Border Patrol picks up the pattern and moves its sensors. The goal is any road on the other side of the mountains where a loadout vehicle can pick them up and make it past the checkpoints. Some routes take only a few hours of walking, but increasingly, under pressure from the patrol, smugglers bring groups farther and


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farther overland on foot, up to thirty or forty miles, before loading out. Given the terrain and the darkness, many get lost. Some die. Several groups I talked to after they were apprehended and put in the back of a Bronco had been in the brush for several days with little water and no food.

In a trailer next to the checkpoint on Highway 94, I watched El Cajon station agents process the evening's arrests. The small trailer was divided in two: one half occupied by two tables and an agent, the other, by thirty or so detainees covered with dirt and scratch marks. Their faces revealed their fatigue. They were all men, mostly in their teens or twenties, although one or two had the creased skin and bent frames of grandfathers. All but the youngest of them, apparently novices, were in good spirits, even relieved to have been caught. An old man smiled at me and said, "At least it's warmer in here." The agent tossed them each a package of cheddar-flavored crackers and a bottle of fruit juice, and began calling them in one by one to a table piled with eight-by-ten forms. The station had recently installed a new computer system, but no computers were in evidence. I was told they'd been down for a few weeks.

Undoubtedly a number of the men were smugglers. Some may even have been what the Border Patrol calls "carps" (derived from "Criminal Alien Removal Program")-aliens with convictions in the United States. The agents try to figure out who is whom, but it isn't easy, and the aliens rarely speak up. So agents rely on their intuition, paying close attention to dress: smugglers favor athletic jackets with white logos on the back (Raiders and White Sox are the most popular) and white sneakers and socks that make them easier to follow at night. Or an agent will ask for the time, because poor migrants rarely wear watches. If a smuggler is found out, the agents must then be able to demonstrate proof, which tends to mean getting a polio to finger him, an infrequent occurrence even when the pollero has abused his people.

But even if such evidence is obtained and documented, and a hearing finds the smuggler guilty, there is essentially no penalty levied. The INS has the authority to convict smugglers and send them to prison, but this happens exceedingly rarely, and when it does the charge is more likely to be repeated entry than smuggling. Largely because of the amount of paperwork required and a severe shortage of detention space, the INS prosecuted only 3,673 people in 1995 for repeated entry, and "prosecution" in these cases meant that the alien was held for a few days prior to his deportation hearing, then returned to Mexico to start all over again. Agents I talked with from California to Texas echoed the complaint of one senior agent in Calexico, California "There's a lot of frustration at catching the same guy five or six times a day and knowing there is nothing you can do about it. Morale is pretty low for the troops. You wonder, why am I running after this guy?"

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Most of the men in the trailer had been caught before, and freely confessed that they would keep trying until they got through. Besides, it was too far and too expensive to turn around and go home. Pointing at the agent, a man from Puerto Vallarta said, almost apologetically, "It doesn't matter how many migras there are, because nothing is going to stop us from going. Maybe he'll catch some of us ten times, maybe more, but we'll get through." The agent's response--to me--was, "They keep coming, we keep catching 'em." To the youth whose paperwork he was finishing, he said, "We're gonna play the same game tomorrow night, right, vato?" The agent stacked his forms and started processing the next group. El Cajon station had been averaging 300 apprehensions a day; at eight o'clock this Saturday night the shift was already up to 390 and would break 500 before going home. At the other stations east of Gatekeeper--Brown Field, Campo, Boulevard--the story was the same.

The agent in the trailer asked each detainee in heavily accented but fluent Spanish for a name, a birthplace, and the names of his parents. They were free to give him any information they chose. He asked each one if his nationality was Mexican. Some answered, only half-jokingly, "nacionalidad cubana." Cubans, they wrongly believe, get asylum; Mexicans, they know, do not. He then had the detainee sign the form for VR, or voluntary return, which meant they would not be set up for a "deport" but would simply go outside to wait in a bus until it filled up and took them back to the line at Tecate or Calexico. As fast as the detainees were processed, their places in the back room were filled by newcomers. When I asked why they chose to cross in the mountains, to a man they said that Tijuana was too hard. When I asked them, for formality's sake, why they cross at all, they told me that work has become almost impossible to find in Mexico, or if it is found, the wages are so low that the prospect of earning dollars in El Norte is literally irresistible. While others around him nodded in agreement, the man from Puerto Vallarta explained, "We can earn in one day in California what we earn in two weeks in Jalisco. What would you do?"


To understand the decision to implement Operation Gatekeeper it is important to note that the operation had a parent--and an illegitimate one at that. In September 1993 proponents of stepped-up border enforcement, among them many powerful California politicians, sat up and took notice when first local and then national press accounts began reporting the dramatic success of something called Operation Blockade, which was being carried out by the Border Patrol in El Paso. A new chief, Silvestre Reyes, transferred to El Paso sector only months earlier, had single- handedly turned the nation's immigration status quo on its


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head by doing a seemingly obvious thing for a Border Patrol chief to do: all but stop illegal entry in his zone of responsibility.

When Reyes took over in the spring of 1993, apprehensions for El Paso sector ran second in the country behind San Diego and had increased by 33 percent in each of the previous two years. Along a nearly twenty-mile urbanized corridor, El Paso is enmeshed with Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, an exploding, poverty-ridden city separated from the United States only by the concrete banks of the Rio Grande. People crossed when and where they liked if the water was low, and when it was high they crossed by paying tolls to the street gangs that controlled the bridges and pipes spanning the river, or to the lancheros, or ferrymen, who floated people across on crude rafts and inner tubes. The Border Patrol, outnumbered and out-gunned, had long since given up trying to keep people from scrambling from one side to the other, preferring to try to catch people after they had penetrated into the predominantly Latino neighborhoods adjacent to the river. This approach created a great deal of tension with legal residents and precipitated a high volume of complaints and violence, including three shootings by border patrolmen in as many years.

El Paso's pattern of crossing was specific: only 40 percent of entries were pass-throughs, destined for the U.S. interior; the majority crossed daily or weekly to jobs in El Paso, and many crossed merely to shop. "When I first got here there were between 8,000 and 10,000 illegal entries a day," Reyes told me. "We were catching 1,400--about 10 percent." After studying the problem for several months, he conceived a strategy of deterrence rather than apprehension: all he needed was enough manpower to place agents at regular intervals, within sight of one another, on the concrete levees of the river facing Mexico. A request for overtime money was made to Washington, and Reyes was given some year-end money from the INS budget that remained unspent. Operation Blockade was launched on September 19, 1993, for an initial run of fourteen days. It was immediately and dramatically successful. Reyes said that the patrol went from "1,000 to 1,400 apprehensions a day and between 15 and 25 complaints a week to less than 100 apprehensions a day plus zero complaints." Enrique Lomas, an editorialist for the Ciudad Juarez daily El Diario, told me that while the attitude of Juarez residents toward the patrol remains negative, "since 1993, when they implemented Operation Blockade, all of the violent incidents have ceased." But the price, he said, is that El Paso is now unreachable. "The effect is total and absolute. No one gets across there."

Such zealousness on Reyes's part was a violation of the border game's underlying rules, and all interested parties quickly reacted. The lancheros organized rallies to denounce the threat to their livelihood. Diplomatic protests were lodged by the Mexican government with the U.S. State Department, which passed them on to the

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Justice Department with vociferous protests of their own that Reyes had intruded into the sacred realm of international affairs. Mexico City, according to Reyes, sent "whole delegations of congressmen and senators, special envoys, ambassadors down to El Paso to meet with me. They weren't happy about what we were doing. They were taking the position that they were offended, that in the era when we were trying to pass NAFTA, how dare we control the border." The Clinton Administration, which had held out the threat of an even greater deluge of illegal immigration from a collapsing Mexico to persuade a skeptical American public to back the agreement, wasn't happy either. Nor, according to former INS spokesman Duke Austin, was INS headquarters. "The initial reaction," he explained, "was we've got to stop this,' but then they found out the mayor of El Paso and all the local people were in tremendous support of it. Crime has gone down, car theft has gone down. And so we can't pull the rug on this thing." Reyes, however, maintains that pressure was applied: "Many times I was expected to fold up and stop the operation. I did not. I would not." When I asked if the order had come in writing, he admitted, "It was freely discussed in conference calls. But my request was simple: Who's going to order me to stop it? Because the minute I stopped it I had to identify somebody who told me to stop it. And I was clear in the fact that I was not going to do it voluntarily. ...I was not going to say, Well we've proven the border can be controlled, let's go back to the old way of doing things.' Nobody was willing to do that." Reyes was grudgingly allowed to continue but was ordered to change the name of the operation, considered too provocative, to "Operation Hold the Line." It continues to be enforced in El Paso today, although with significantly lower manpower. Reyes, riding a wave of local popularity, stepped down last year and is currently making a bid for Congress, as a Democrat.

Operation Blockade proved to be the turning point that Immigration-control advocates had been seeking: for years a major argument used by border-game conservatives was that serious control shouldn't be attempted because it couldn't be accomplished. Silvestre Reyes had proven them wrong, and soon Pete Wilson and other potential players were visiting El Paso. Not long afterward demands for a similar strategy in San Diego began ringing in the Clinton Administration's ears. In Sacramento, lawmakers of both parties raised a call to put the state's National Guard on the border. This threat worked, as it did later that year, when Florida governor Lawton Chiles threatened to call out his own National Guard troops to interdict the Cuban refugees landing on Florida shores, forcing Clinton to reverse his position and move to turn back the flotilla. With Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress suddenly falling over each other to beat him over the head with the issue, and with his eye on California's all-important fifty-four electoral college votes, Clinton got the message. When INS Commissioner Meissner announced the budget initiative in


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February 1994, she boasted, "The special operation we carried out in El Paso last fall showed that illegal entry can be deterred if we work smart." An administration spokesman said at the time, "What we are doing here is putting the rule of law back into the border after decades of neglect." Republican critics immediately pointed out that those decades of neglect were supervised by a Democratic Congress.


Shortly after the implementation of Operation Blockade in El Paso, the pressure began to be felt in Nogales, Arizone, a sedate town of 20,000 sitting cheek by jowl in the mountains with its Mexican sister city of 400,000, Nogales, Sonora. The two Nogaleses mark the terminus of Mexican Highway 15, the main artery taken by migrants from populous central Mexico before they would have turned off, just fifty miles shy of the Arizona border, onto Highway 2, west toward California or east toward El Paso. Now they did neither. Nogales, in the words repeated to me by Border Patrol agents countless times, like an inverse mantra, was overrun. The Port of Entry, at the base of a steep valley between the dwelling-covered hillsides of both cities, became a repeat venue for what the patrol calls "banzais": mass runs of people up the vehicle lanes of the port. Nogales's banzais in 1994 reached epic levels--300 or 400 people at a time, with U.S. Customs officials bleeding from head wounds caused by hurled chunks of pavement--before the Mexican police were pressured into keeping migrants from loitering in the plaza just beyond the port. The city of Tucson to the north, with 700,000 or so inhabitants, makes do with about 200 taxi-cabs. The far less populous Nogales, Arizona, has seen its own fleet rise to between 200 and 300, depending on whom you ask and what you're willing to pay. Most residents of Tucson own a car, it's true. But so do most residents of Nogales. The difference is that many of those who take cabs in Nogales take them only once: vie-way to Tucson.

Attempted entries at Nogales were getting out of hand until an outraged Arizona press demanded to know why its state should be sacrificed for California's electoral votes. A new operation, this one called Safeguard, was eventually launched in Nogales on October 10, 1994 (just days after Gatekeeper), complete with low-light camera towers, a few night-vision scopes, and a landing-mat fence--this time built with the corrugation oriented vertically, an innovation that at first sent numbers of aliens to the hospital on the Arizona side with leg and wrist fractures. In Nogales at least, the strategy has had a visible impact. The fence has forced migrants to skirt the town center and cross instead in the outlying, thorn-covered hills where the Border Patrol has more time to track them down before they can load out for Tucson and points north. Crime has fallen to a ten-year low. Hotels in Nogales, Sonora, are overflowing with people waiting to cross;

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hotels on the U.S. side are also packed, with people who have crossed successfully and are waiting to load out, and room rates are curiously high for such a small, isolated town.

These trails have been here since way before I was here, and they'll be here long after," patrol supervisor Greg Kurupas told me as we drove through a wide and much-trafficked arroyo near the border outside of Nogales. The area was golden with winter-dormant grasses and dotted with evergreen oaks, and tracks cut through it like wrinkles on a palm. Agent Kurupas was proud of his job, but he was no idealist. He told me he did it because he enjoyed it. "It's like playing hide and seek when you're young. When someone's coming up on you, you feel it right here," he said, touching his stomach. "It's awesome." Before sundown, there was little activity for me to see beyond a few young men caught trying to jump a north-bound freight train in the Southern Pacific yard. Just after dark we drove back to the hilly residential neighborhood downtown, right next to the fence. Agent Kurupas promised to show me a person he said was one of the chief capos in the Nogales drug trade. We parked beneath a tree in front of a white bungalow on a quiet street. The capo's house was plainly visible from where we were sitting, not forty yards over the fence on the Mexican side. Agent Kurupas maintained that one could see, from this spot, the drug chief making payoffs to Mexican policemen. The capo's name, at least among the Border Patrol, was Grandma: an older woman who had become a successful middleman as Nogales became a more important drug-trafficking nexus. No one moved inside the house.

Then the radio started squawking. Two streets away from us, in an arroyo flanking the fence, a robbery was taking place. The low-light camera operator had spotted two men holding a group of people at knifepoint. Agent Kurupas started the Bronco and we took off. The camera operator began shouting over the radio that there were now two robberies going on and more victims than he could keep track of. The Bronco's headlights swung into the arroyo: the silhouettes of two men, holding knives, were standing before several more figures, gesturing aggressively and pulling at their clothes. When the lights hit them, they took off running, as did the victims. Agent Kurupas told me to be careful, because "these guys have guns." Then he ran off into the brush in pursuit. From where I was I could see figures intermittently running back and forth across the gully and disappearing into bushes on either side. After two or three minutes, the two robbers ran past me, climbed the fence, and were gone. The camera operator said, "Two bandits escaped south." A minute later Agent Kurupas walked up, winded, with a sobbing woman in her forties and her two teenage sons in tow. They'd been taken for all they had.

We had hardly parked the Bronco before the radio went off again. An agent's excited voice came over the speaker, screaming something along the lines of, "I'm alone in the hills east of town.


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"I've flushed a group of fifty at least. Do you copy? No, there are more, they're scattering all over the place. Maybe a hundred. I need backup. Backup!" Agent Kurupas calmly asked, "Have you ever gone Code Three before?" I hadn't. The siren went on, the lights started flashing, and we took off on a narrow road toward the outskirts of town, traveling a cool eighty. When we arrived at the scene, two other Broncos had pulled off the road and agents were scrambling up a hillside illuminated by darting sweeps of blue light from a helicopter swooping terrifyingly close overhead. In the noise and wash of the blades, Agent Kurupas handed me a flashlight and began climbing the hill. Having received no instructions to the contrary, I turned it on. The hillside was thick with barrel cactus and thorny trees called wait-a-minute bushes, for their propensity to catch a person's clothes and stop them in their tracks. I followed a hundred yards up the hill. In the helicopter's beam I could just glimpse frames of a bizarre, chaotic scene: everywhere around me human shapes were careening through the scrub in a sort of strobe-lit slow motion; one person, fifteen people running behind a screen of branches, another group, another person, a smaller group. The chopper's noise was incredible, the flashes, disorienting. I tripped over a three-foot-high cactus, wincing. Then, in a bloom of blue light that passed over for a split second, I could discern the shapes of ten or so people, lurching toward me out of a line of bushes. These were illegal aliens, running at a full clip right at me. There was only one way through the thornbushes around us--over me. They were going to plow me under. I realized that all I had was a miniature flashlight, and that these people didn't know that I wasn't a migra but a harmless reporter whose journalistic conscience told him he must not actively participate in what he saw. Between me and the group, the space of our mutual denial was contracting. The border--the line that these people, and millions like them, want to believe does not exist; the line that most Americans want to believe does exist--was coming abruptly into focus. At the last second I shined the feeble light up at them and held my hands up for them to stop. Five feet away, they pulled up and stared at me. I motioned toward the ground with my hands and said, "Bajanse, get down." They sat down, all ten of them, and we waited, looking at one another in the eerie, sweeping light. Around us the chaos continued, as the agents slowly corralled the scattered groups and brought them down the slope to the road in files. My group joined another without being asked, and I fell in behind them.


As the INS concentrates its efforts on the increasing traffic in our southwestern deserts, Operations Gatekeeper and Hold the Line--having outlived their function as P.R. showpieces--are being allowed to slip quietly into disrepair. At the outset of Gatekeeper, Gus de la Vina, then the San Diego sector chief, warned

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that an El Paso-style approach, in which agents are assigned to specific and highly visible spots along the border and instructed not to stray from them, would not work in San Diego because of the complexity of its terrain and the tenacity of its crossers, some of whom have traveled thousands of miles. What he could not have foreseen is that this tactic would, in the long run, prove ineffective in El Paso as well, for the simple reason that standing in one place for the entirety of a ten-hour shift is intolerably boring. Agents call this "sitting on an X," and many of them complained to me that the monotony is made worse by the knowledge that such an approach doesn't really work, that it severely limits the patrol's ability, especially in San Diego sector, to respond to the subtle moves and countermoves smugglers employ, and that it drains personnel away from important interior-enforcement tasks such as manning highway checkpoints and visiting workplaces. Moreover, attempted entries have again been rising steadily in Imperial Beach, exacerbated by word of mouth among smugglers that the line there is weakening. (Part of the balloon theory warns that although you may force the air within to seek release elsewhere, the pressure will remain strong under the hands that squeeze it.) As one agent told me, "If we lose I.B., we'll never get it back."

Such frustrations exact a price. Both sectors have been plagued by agent attrition, and while burnout may have caused these vacancies, their persistence is due to the simple fact that the INS has failed to hire people fast enough to keep up even with agent turnover let alone with the vaunted expansion of the Border Patrol variously promised by Congress and the Clinton Administration. As part of its $500 million budget increase in 1995, the INS was mandated to hire 2,182 new employees. By year's end it had managed to bring on only 1,416. Combined with the 1996 hiring goal of 4,125, the agency now faces a shortfall of 5,000 employees--a nearly insurmountable number in the short run. Even if last May's bill--and the 4,700 new agents it provides for--is signed into law, its effects will most likely not be felt for quite some time.

A lag in the bureaucratic response to increased funding is expectable, perhaps. More damning are charges, made to me repeatedly by veteran agents, that INS management, in an effort to guard against any cracks appearing in the agency's claim that its efforts are having the intended impact at the border, has encouraged supervisors to keep apprehension numbers in Imperial Beach below a certain threshold. This sleight of hand is accomplished by diverting agents from other stations as needed or by simply failing to process apprehended aliens. "If we catch more than 200 a day it's against us," Hal told me, "and at I.B. station, we've been told constantly, Don't catch 'em if you're catching too many.' And the reason I said 200 is because that's the magical number we can't go over. If we go over 200 in a twenty-four-hour period the chief gets a call from Commissioner Meissner when she


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gets a call from Attorney General Reno, and heads start rolling and threats are made. And what we do, we shut down East County and bring everybody to I.B. and bring the numbers down again." His supervisor, he said, "has falsified documents continuously. I've seen him. If we catch 500 aliens he'll write down that we caught 200. As soon as the bus shows up we get rid of 'em."

Beyond the internal machinations of the INS lies the overwhelming reality that an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants settle in the United States each year and that an estimated total of 4.3 million illegal aliens now reside here permanently (a figure that does not include the 2,680,257 illegals who were granted legal status by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986). Although both the Clinton Administration and its Republican critics have exclusively framed the question of illegal immigration in terms of defending our border with Mexico, the rhetoric is disingenuous and misleading: over half of all illegal immigrants in this country never go near the Mexican border but enter with legal visas through interior Ports of Entry and simply fail to leave. INS enforcement priorities purposely ignore this fact. In 1993, before Operation Gatekeeper, 97.5 percent of all INS apprehensions were of aliens crossing the southern border; predictably, 95.3 percent of these people were Mexicans. The figures have not significantly changed since. Although Mexicans account for less than half of all illegal immigrants in this country, more than half a million of them will be apprehended this year at the southern border. In the meantime, the INS will have removed only about 50,000 illegals from the interior.

Our immigration law as it is currently written and interpreted deserves much of the blame for this. The Immigration and Nationality Act, one of the most complex federal statutes after the tax code, allows persons detained by the INS almost unlimited relief in the name of due process. Should aliens be unlucky enough to be caught in the interior, the INS is unable, except in the most egregious cases, to detain them because of a lack of detention space as well as the ease with which aliens may file a claim for political asylum, a maneuver that can extend their stay for up to five years. In either instance, an alien is issued an order to appear for a hearing and then released. Few show up, and indeed it would be stupid for them to do so, as there is no legal penalty for failing to appear. In those few cases in which a hearing actually occurs, usually because the alien has been arrested for committing a crime, the process of appeal and release can go on indefinitely. Duke Austin repeated to me a saying popular among INS general counsel lawyers: "The case never ends until the alien wins." And, he maintains, "You could give the national defense budget to the INS and it would not dramatically change the character of the problem. As long as we have a set of laws now that prohibit the removal of people, that grant appeals and release that just extend

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on forever, the INS will always be inept to remove people who don't want to leave the U.S."

By the same token, as long as the U.S. government continues to acquiesce to the demand that business have unlimited access to an ever-expanding pool of cheap, mobile labor outside the protective umbrella of labor-market constraints painfully erected over decades to guarantee the rights of American workers, the burden placed on the Border Patrol to "do something" about illegal immigration by itself will remain a cynical and, at times, cruel political strategy. Employers will continue to take advantage of the narcotic of Third World labor available to them inside the United States, and smugglers will continue to take advantage of those who would supply that labor.

The truth about illegal immigration is that until such time as U.S. law barring the employment of illegal aliens is enforced--or U.S. wages drop below those of the Third World--poor foreigners will continue to come here. Our elected representatives have neither the political security nor the will to alter this fact. We now live in a time when everything crosses national borders--images, capital, technology, disease, ideas--and as the century draws to a close, there will no doubt be more dramatic demands that the border be properly policed. These demands our government will oblige with grand operations and congressional bills designed to pacify the populace until after the next election. We should, however, expect little by way of substantive change--just more empty gestures, and more aliens.

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