By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
With border crossings ever more perilous, the cyclical nature of illegal immigration has been snapped, and now more of the undocumented just stay in the U.S. — a growth of about a half-million per year.
The border buildup has also spelled a bonanza for “polleros” and “coyotes” — those specialists in human smuggling. Their rates have risen from $500 a head to $1,500 and more, while their ranks have been increasingly dominated by sophisticated criminal gangs who have merged their narcotics- and people-trafficking operations. Arizona law-enforcement officials complain of a spreading epidemic of smuggler-related crime and homicide, which has recently erupted into bloody gunfights around Phoenix. Ultra-right-wing armed vigilante groups have flourished.
“Border enforcement is a low-cost, feel-good alternative,” says Cornelius. “It’s the least disruptive to employers and requires no sacrifices from Americans.” While enforcement along the border has seen a tripling of resources under the new strategy, resources for “inside” enforcement have withered to 2 percent of the immigration budget. In the year 2000, only 178 American employers were fined for hiring illegal immigrants, and only 1,000 undocumented workers were apprehended in their workplaces. Workplace enforcement has declined even further in the last three years, despite last October’s high-profile arrest of 300 Wal-Mart workers. There are somewhere between 8 million and 12 million undocumented immigrants working and living in the U.S.
“Welcome to the border of hypocrisy,” says Oceanside-based public-interest lawyer Claudia Smith, one of the fiercest critics of immigration policy. “The U.S. never intended to fully close the border, they just wanted to keep [illegal] immigration out of the public eye.”
The so-called San Miguel Gate on the southern fringe of Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Indian reservation is about as far from the public eye as you can get. And it is, indeed, right at the new ground zero for illegal and danger-fraught border crossings. This is the tip of the immigration funnel.
No 12-foot walls or space-age lights are to be seen. Here the border is marked by three chest-high strands of wire that can be and are regularly cut with hand pliers or plowed over by rampaging four-wheel-drive vehicles.
But why bother? The cattle gate at the end of the dirt road today is wide-open. A Border Patrol jeep stands by on near-permanent guard, but everyone knows you don’t make the crossing here, but rather a few hundred yards or a mile or two away on either side.
Even on this relatively cool November afternoon, the air is so dry that a constant thirst nags the throat. Experts say that in the dead of summer, plagued by triple-digit temperatures, anyone crossing here by foot needs a gallon of water per hour.
A twisted yellow sign over the fence sends out a warning in Spanish: “Danger: Do Not Expose Your Life to the Elements. It’s Not Worth It. No Drinking Water.”
The grim statistics punctuate the warning. A full 160 of this year’s border deaths have occurred in this “Tucson Sector,” more than half of them right here on the Tohono reservation. From 1995 through 2000, deaths in this area rose more than 1,100 percent. Drug trafficking is also way up.
Accompanying me and some other reporters today are two camouflage-outfitted and heavily armed members of the elite Shadow Wolf detachment of what used to be called U.S. Customs, but is now one more piece of the Department of Homeland Security.
All of American Indian descent, only 21 Shadow Wolves exist in the entire United States. Relying on traditional Indian tracking methods, they do the job of hunting down the smugglers — the drug traffickers. Things have gotten so bad on this piece of the border, they say they can seize as much as 35,000 pounds of drugs a month — mostly marijuana.
And while the “mota” might be a relatively benign drug, its trafficking is often deadly — a neat parallel with the border trade in humans. The vast majority of border crossers are humble immigrants seeking a better life. Their smugglers can be something else altogether.
“If you can get 10 people up to Phoenix at $1,500 per head, you’re making as much as someone running a load of dope,” says Shadow Wolf Curtis Heim. “They have everything we have. Fast cars, communications and guns — AK-47s, fully automatic handguns, night-vision scopes, spikes to throw in front of our vehicles, encoded radios just like ours.”
Earlier in the day, the leadership of the Tohono Nation hosted the visiting journalists with an hours-long presentation on the impact the tribe is suffering under current border strategy. Five years ago, Tohono police might encounter 100 border crossers per day. Now it can hit 1,500 per day in peak seasons, says Tohono Nation vice chair Ned Norris Jr.
“Our financial resources are being used to address problems that are not ours,” he continues. “The problem is that of the U.S. government, but the U.S. government is not paying for it.” Tribal authorities put the annual dollar cost of increased crossings through their land at more than $3.5 million — a huge amount for an Indian population of just 15,000 scattered over borderlands the size of Connecticut.
Just the cost of homicide investigations and autopsies of the perished crossers strains the tribal resources. Equally burdened are the tribe’s medical services. The tribe has been pleading with the federal government for more financial support to solve a problem created, after all, by federal policy. So far the Department of Homeland Security has come up with a mere $26,000 for improved radio systems for the Tohono police.