Photo by J. Emilio Flores
From nearly any hilltop in Tijuana you can peer down toward “la linea,” the U.S.-Mexican border, and easily see the U.S. government’s multibillion-dollar handiwork of the last 10 years. Of the 2,000-mile-long border, only 3.5 percent of it, about 70 miles’ worth, is fortified against illegal immigration.
But of that buildup, a wildly disproportionate chunk is concentrated right here on the San Diego–Tijuana line, about two and a half hours due south of Hollywood Boulevard. A full quarter of the 9,500 armed Border Patrol agents deployed along America’s southern frontiers are squeezed within this one 60-mile-wide “San Diego Sector.” So is a full 50 percent of all the stadium-strength lighting fixed along the entire length of the border.
The 12-foot-high wall, fashioned from Vietnam-era surplus corrugated-metal landing plates, stretches and turns and in some areas swells into a formidable barbed-wire-topped triple-fence barrier running several hundreds of yards out and sinking into the Pacific Ocean. Try to swim around it and the Coast Guard will push you right back.
Remote-control-camera towers, as if borrowed from the sets of the Terminator movies, relentlessly
and tirelessly scan the dusty dirt roads on the U.S. side for any wandering “I.A.s” — cop talk for illegal aliens.
Mobile, truck-mounted infrared Border Patrol scopes effortlessly peer through the darkness of night,
as do specially equipped helicopters. Hundreds of motion and heat sensors strategically stitched into the surrounding hillsides alert Border Patrol agents to any stealth crossers. The agents, in turn, don’t just sit in their SUVs and munch doughnuts and doze off. They are out on their hands and knees in the middle of the night, flashlights and night scopes in hand, methodically searching for human tracks and trails.
Ghosts of the cross (Photo by J. Emilio Flores)
These are the visible signs of what is now a decade-long clampdown on the Southern California border,
a maneuver originally dubbed Operation Gatekeeper by the Clinton administration. And if its goal was to turn off the spigot of illegal immigration through the San Diego area, it has been a resounding success.
No one on either side of the border, or on either side of the ever-simmering immigration-policy debate, will dispute that fact. Those “they keep coming” days depicted in the grainy Pete Wilson (and Dianne Feinstein) 1994 campaign footage showing a stream of Mexicans pouring over the highway at the San Ysidro crossing are long gone. The San Diego Sector has been tightly sealed off for some years now.
In Texas, operations Hold the Line and Rio Grande have just as successfully battened down and sealed off the once-frenetic illegal crossing points near El Paso and Brownsville. Operation Safeguard, initiated
in 1999, locked down the immigrant corridor through Nogales, located midpoint on the southern
Bringing illegal immigration to a virtual halt in those four urban ports of entry has been the centerpiece, the much-trumpeted intended consequence, of the last decade of U.S. border strategy.
The unintended consequences are less publicized.
A handful of weeks ago, a group of Tijuana-based activists gathered nine brightly painted full-size coffins and bolted them right onto the grimy border wall along a stretch of the heavily trafficked route to the local airport. Each coffin is inscribed with a year, running from the mid-’90s to the present, and a death toll: the number of Mexicans who have died while attempting to cross the border.
In 1995, the toll was 61.
In 2000, the number of dead had risen to 499.
This year, the toll already stood at nearly 400 at the end of October.
“The U.S.-Mexican border has been 10 times deadlier to Mexican immigrants in the last 10 years than was the whole 28-year history of the Berlin Wall [to East Germans],” says Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.
Over the entire history of the Berlin Wall, 287 people perished trying to cross it. Since the Clinton administration implemented the current U.S. border strategy, more than 2,500 Mexicans have died. Or 2,600. Or 2,700 by some counts. ‰
“It has been a strategy of prevention through deterrence,” says Cornelius. If the four traditional urban hot spots for illegal crossings could be barricaded, as they were, Cornelius says the U.S. government believed that “the mountains and deserts would do the rest.”
The calculation was either dead on or dead wrong, depending on how cynical you believe the architects of the strategy were. With the extremities of the border tied off, the immigration flow has been, in essence, funneled away from El Paso and Tijuana, and into the unforgiving mountains along the eastern edge of the California border and through the brutal deserts along the mostly uninhabited patches of southern Arizona.
Sunstroke, freezing temperatures, dehydration and asphyxiation in sealed containers are the primary causes of death, along with drowning and crashes of vehicles involved in high-speed Border Patrol pursuits. A full third of the Mexican dead go unidentified.
The zooming number of fatalities is only the most gruesome among these unintended consequences. After a full decade of the clampdown, apprehension of illegal border crossers by U.S. authorities is right where it was in 1994, at just about a million per year.
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.
The impact of the funneled immigration also includes a growing problem of corruption among the Tohonos. Smugglers are paying off tribe members who offer safe houses to stash immigrants and drugs. “I just found out that one of my nieces got her vehicle seized by the Border Patrol,” says Norris. “She was hauling immigrants up to the highway. Cash influence is big on the nation. You flash two, three thousand dollars here among the people and you can get a lot.”
The response of the Tohono to their predicament has surprised a number of observers. The Indians, in short, are taking the hard line against illegal immigration through their territory and are demanding a more effective crackdown by the Border Patrol. Recent tribal elections brought to power the group that vowed to work closest with federal law enforcement.
Curtis Heim with one day’s catch
of marijuana (Photo by Marc Cooper)
During the tribe’s presentations to the reporters, two middle-aged women were brought forward to offer personal testimonies of home break-ins and carjackings by the illegal aliens they freely term I.A.s, just like the Border Patrol. “They have trashed everything,” says Gloria Chavez, who one day came home to find an intruding border crosser in her home. “I feel like they’re a danger.”
“Historically, our people have been compassionate,” says vice chair Norris. “We have offered border crossers water, food, shelter, as well as a place in our pickup trucks.
“But now,” he says, “we have to revisit just how compassionate we should be.”
That sagging quotient of Indian compassion is a point of great concern and consternation among Arizona’s border and immigration activists. Over the last few years, small humanitarian groups based in Tucson and Bisbee started placing thousands of jugs of drinking water along some of the most dangerous and dry crossing corridors.
To date, the Tohono tribe has steadfastly refused to allow the placing of water on its land.
The more politically correct among the border activists consider it unspeakable heresy to criticize the Indians. But that’s hardly the case at the weekly meeting of the Tucson-based activist group Humane Borders.
On the second floor of his First Christian Church, the group’s leader, pastor Robin Hoover, has convened the usual crew of a dozen or so. A tough-talking Texan, Hoover has secured almost 50 permitted sites from the federal government, where he and his volunteers lay down as many as 2,500 gallons of water per day in the hot summer months. Hoover stirred a pot of political controversy when he published an op-ed piece earlier this year in a Tucson daily, flatly stating that “no political status, no legal posture, no moral tradition and no social ethic can absolve the Tohono O’odham Nation for not proactively providing water or allowing others to help.”
Six months after he wrote those words, Hoover and his group are still persistent on the issue. “It’s immoral to use the desert as part of the deterrent system,” he says. “We put up our hand and point here and say death in the desert is unacceptable.” He’s gesturing toward a map of Arizona on the wall in the church meeting room. Bright red dots mark immigrant deaths. There’s a hemorrhage on the Tohono lands.
Group member Mike Wilson offers up his weekly report. The previous Saturday he placed a total of 134 gallons of bottled water on two sites on Tohono land. When he went back a few days later, the entire lot was slashed or intentionally spilled, as has happened repeatedly. “All of it, everything was destroyed,” he says glumly.
For the 54-year-old, ponytailed and bespectacled Wilson, this is a double disappointment. He is also a Tohono. And until a year ago, the former Green Beret, who once served as a U.S. military adviser in El Salvador, worked on the reservation as a Presbyterian minister. He had no real option, he says, other than to quit the post (and eventually the church) as the tribal leadership pressured him to stop providing water.
“I was going to be banished. And they passed resolutions banning me from putting out the water,” he says. “But fuck ’em. I’m going to continue whether they like it or not.”
Many are the theories as to why the Tohonos are refusing to cooperate in providing humanitarian assistance. Some say they are just so plain angry over their predicament they want to cooperate with no outside forces. Others claim that too many of the tribe’s members have been compromised by the burgeoning border trafficking and they don’t want any extraneous watchful eyes roaming the reservation.
Mike Wilson says it is fear. “They’re afraid the water will encourage more crossers, but people don’t cross the border looking for water,” he says. “We are a desert people, and we know what water means. I am going to continue no matter what they say. This whole thing is a public-relations nightmare for the Nation. I plan to make it worse for them until they come around.”
Among Tucson’s activist community there are whispers about possible plans by the sizable local Latino population to stage protest boycotts of the Tohonos’ three gambling casinos.
A couple hours east of the Tohono lands, and just north of the Mexican border, sits the small, colorful settlement of Tombstone, Arizona. A sort of mini-Disneyland for the culturally conservative, the town has reconstructed and nourished its Old West look, appearing almost as a movie set of Dodge City or, well, Tombstone. A faux Boot Hill cemetery and kitschy OK Corral (with hourly gunfighter shows) compete with an authentic 19th-century concert hall and other perfectly preserved clapboard structures for the attention of the mostly elderly tourists who rumble through town in their Winnebagos.
In the last handful of years, Tombstone and the nearby hamlet of Sierra Vista have also become a desert oasis for a motley collection of gun worshipers, bounty hunters, militiamen and border vigilantes. Yet one more unintended consequence of U.S. border strategy.
For if there’s one thing that the right-wing militias, the left-wing immigration activists, the Tohono Indians and local elected officials of all stripes in this part of the world can agree upon, it is that the federal government never gave anyone any warning that a human tidal wave of desperate immigrants was going to be funneled their way. No one should be surprised by bizarre or even violent reactions.
No sooner did thousands of border crossers begin tramping through their cattle fields than some of the local ranchers started organizing and arming themselves. From as far away as Texas and California, in came a handful of professional xenophobes to give political direction and shape to the backlash. Armed anti-immigrant groups like Ranch Rescue and American Patrol started going public by 2000.
After local ranchers Roger and Donald Barnett took a platoon or two of reporters out on their maneuvers, where they would “detain” illegal crossers at gunpoint, a wave of national publicity ensued. The Mexican government protested the vigilante outbreak. The U.S. Border Patrol claimed it did not want or need the groups’ offers of assistance.
But the vigilantes are still here. The notorious Southern California expat xenophobe Glenn Spencer directs his American Patrol from a nearby town. His latest venture is to have gotten two or three unmanned surveillance drones into the sky before the feds have been able to do the same.
In Tombstone itself, the local anti-immigrant comandante is another expat, 43-year-old Chris Simcox. A pale and wan Midwesterner, Simcox worked in the Los Angeles music industry and as a public-school teacher before coming out here a few years ago to buy and publish the weekly Tombstone Tumbleweed.
He’s also the founder and leader of the local border militia, a volunteer group he calls the Civil Homeland Defense, and he is currently facing a series of gun-related criminal charges.
But Simcox is undaunted. “We have no choice to do what we do, because we have hammered on our local officials and they have ignored us,” he says to a gathering in the ornate town meeting hall. After qualifying for a concealed-weapons permit, and after buying such a weapon, one can join in the militia maneuvers.
“We set up perimeters on well-known trails, on federal land, state land,” Simcox says in explaining a typical weekend operation. “We take up the high points, and when we see a group of illegal aliens we contact the Border Patrol. We approach the group humanely and ask them who they are. You know, ‘¿Hola, como estás?’ . . . It’s my duty as an American to challenge these people.”
While Simcox struggles to give a kinder, gentler face to his operations, preferring to call his group a “neighborhood watch,” expressing compassion for the individual crossers and roundly condemning any suggestion of violence, the more noxious aspects are never far from view.
Indeed, they scream right to the fore after he introduces one of his prime partners, 50-something Kathy Harvey. Dressed in a polyester blue suit, adorned with a red-white-and-blue scarf, Harvey shows off a pasteboard collage of Mexican airline and bus tickets, driver’s licenses, personal letters, photos, and ID cards she and others have recovered from what she calls “trash lay-ups” — areas where border crossers camp during their trek.
Harvey readily subscribes to the crackpot theories put forward by Glenn Spencer and other ideologues that the grand influx of immigrants owes nothing to economic imbalances but is rather evidence of a grand plan by Mexico and Mexicans to stage the “Reconquista” — the re-conquest of the Southwest and its conversion into a Mexican-ruled state of Aztlán.
“My theory,” she says, “is there is a well-organized plan that actively recruits these people from all over Mexico, right down to Mexico City.”
Simcox butts in for a moment to reinforce the point. “These are not poor migrant workers,” he says. “Not if they spent $1,200 just to get to the border.”
Harvey continues spinning out her Reconquista theory, now indicting American religious activists like Humane Borders’ Hoover for their alleged complicity. “Just go see about any flight coming in from Mexico,” she says. “Right there you see a man of the cloth who is standing there ready to hand out tickets to go on to Chicago and whatever cities.”
Simcox retakes the floor as he senses things may be edging a bit too far toward the incredible. “Time for solutions,” he says, changing the subject. “At this point what we need is military augmentation on that border. Not mines or tanks. But we need to lay down the law. As Americans, we will say you will follow the law.”
And as an American, Simcox adds when asked, he is not willing to pay higher taxes to pay for the militarization of the border.
The earliest word that came to me from the Clinton administration was you have to do something about the border,” remembers Doris Meissner as she speaks at a dinner gathering in Tucson. Meissner served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the entirety of Clinton’s two terms. The current border strategy was implemented under her watch and authority.
“I will always remember the first meeting with [Attorney General] Janet Reno,” Meissner continues. “She said, ‘You will do the border first.’”
Meissner is a clearly intelligent and thoughtful person, and hardly a newcomer to border issues. Back in the ’80s, she had some involvement in providing humanitarian assistance to Salvadorans seeking refuge in Texas.
Now working in a Beltway immigration think tank, she faces the thorny task of explaining or at least justifying how, as a functionary in what was supposed to be a relatively enlightened administration, she wound up imposing a border policy that even she agrees has too many unintended consequences.
She takes pains to establish the context of the early ’90s, when the policy was hatched. Large states, including California, began suing the federal government for reimbursement of moneys spent on illegal aliens. California Governor Pete Wilson was whipping up nativist zeal with his Proposition 187. A lone-ranger Border Patrol commander in El Paso was — on his own — blockading the border at Juárez and winning huge media and popular acclaim for his hard line.
“All this was happening as Clinton was coming into office,” Meissner stresses. “Senator Dianne Feinstein had also just taken Janet Reno for a trip to the Tijuana border. And Feinstein was very insistent, as only she can be, that this was unacceptable, that this mayhem had to stop.”
President Clinton himself was also ultrasensitive to the immigration issue, Meissner says. He blamed the uproar after locally held Cuban immigrants rioted and escaped from a detention center for contributing to his loss in his first re-election race as Arkansas governor.
And so the decision was made immediately after Clinton’s inauguration to redo border policy. This is what is most striking about Meissner’s account: how closely her description of the policy matches that of its most virulent critics.
“We were going to move from a focus on apprehension to one of prevention and creating deterrence,” she says. “Around the four urban ports of Tijuana, Nogales, El Paso and Brownsville is where illegal crossers were being apprehended. The first part of the strategy was to blockade those four corridors. The strategy was able to redirect traffic and stop the flow over those four areas.”
“The rest of the geography across the border would be the deterrent,” Meissner eerily affirms. “The geography was so inhospitable.” ‰
After that assertion is where Meissner’s account begins to depart from those of her critics. Following two years of the new policy, “especially after border deaths emerged,” she says, “we incorporated a border safety program . . . mapping and shifting the Border Patrol to areas where the deaths were occurring.” But the notion is not supported by the statistics. The spike in crossing deaths started to appear not two, but three and four years after the policy was initiated, and has been rising ever since. Whatever “border safety” program there might be has clearly failed.
Meissner says she has “no regrets” over her tenure, but also adds that when it comes to the death toll, “Clearly, not enough has been done in that respect, as that is the ongoing horror story at the border.”
And joining with her critics’ chorus, and now safely distant from the responsibilities of power, Meissner says that in evaluating U.S. border strategy, “The huge paradox now is that the unintended consequences far overshadow the positive.”
After giving another generous two hours of her time to the gathered reporters, Meissner ventures deeper into critiquing the policy she’s responsible for implementing. The whole strategy has been “overcome” by “powerful world forces,” including globalization and a decade’s worth of the North American Free Trade Agreement (again, a policy victory of her own Clinton administration). She agrees that a completely revamped and bilateral border policy begs to be fashioned — one that once and for all recognizes the reality that “25 percent of Mexico’s labor force already lives here,” and that “these migrants are part of our work force and need to be given status.”
And yet, after all that, Meissner cannot quite bring herself to confirm the hard or even approximate number of border deaths racked up over her tenure — even though Mexican authorities, as well as church and human-rights groups, keep a generally reliable and updated account. “There always have been deaths at the border,” she says. “It’s just that no one kept track of it,” she answers when pressed on the issue. “We have no way of knowing if there are more or less deaths. Either way, there should be none.”
When pressed again, she answers, “If I had to do it over again — yeah. I hate this border-death thing — a terrible, terrible injustice.”
The U.S. Border Patrol maintains the mother of all its outposts on the dusty outskirts of Douglas, Arizona. Sitting smack in the middle of one of the strategic clampdown pressure points on the border, the 53,000-square-foot Douglas station is the largest Border Patrol fort in the U.S. Completed two years ago on land seized from narcotics smugglers, it serves as headquarters for a greatly swollen contingent of more than 500 agents.
Just as the San Diego area was fortified as a result of Operation Gatekeeper, Douglas has benefited from 1998’s Operation Safeguard. As the California border was tightened down, immigrant traffic began to rip through Douglas, a sleepy little hamlet whose claim to fame is that Pancho Villa was said to have once ridden his horse up the staircase at the still-grand Hotel Gadsden.
For the last three years, Douglas has also been effectively blockaded. Three miles’ worth of stadium lights have been installed. Vehicle barriers have been erected. A 12-foot fence has been extended. As around San Diego, batteries of sensors have been laid down. Night-vision sky towers and remote video-surveillance cameras scan and scrub the bush-covered desert. A detachment of 20 horses and 16 Border Patrol agents conduct extended 30-day “camp details,” scouring the town’s outskirts for crossers.
And, as in San Diego, the walls, the scopes and the sensors stretch only so far. In the case of Douglas, the fence runs for a total of six miles and then abruptly ends. The once nonstop tramping of immigrants through Douglas has been stanched. Now the same migrants cross through the searing deserts to the west and the freezing and forbidding mountains to the east.
On a recent Friday morning, you could see some of them in the state-of-the-art high-tech “dispatch room” inside the Border Patrol’s Douglas station. A handful of experts sat in front of two banks of 40 TV monitors and computer video screens. By manipulating their consoles of buttons and joysticks, the Border Patrol dispatchers control and move 26 remote video cameras. Everything in their sweep is recorded and kept for 30 days in case there’s any need for cross-referencing.
With little fanfare, the civilian dispatcher sitting in front of me has caught the image of a crosser carefully threading his way through the rocks while talking on a cell phone. A button is pushed, and the remote camera zooms in closely enough to make out his facial features. He looks to be a thin, light-complexioned man with dark hair; he wears blue jeans and a rust-colored jacket.
The man is still on the “south side,” the Mexican side of the border, but he’s headed straight for U.S. territory in the open desert before him. The dispatcher makes a radio call to one of the Border Patrol units that — if not tied down with more pressing business — will swoop in and await the man’s eventual crossing of the line.
It’s one more unremarkable moment, like hundreds of thousands of others, in what the frustrated and disgusted mayor of Douglas calls “our little charade on the border.”
This article was produced as part of the Border Justice Fellowship Program of the Institute for Justice and Journalism at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.
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