Sasabe, Arizona — Under a cloudless desert sky in the bright sunlight of midmorning, we spotted the young Mexican man crouched in the scrub. He flagged us down, right on the main highway barely a mile north of the border.

Emilio Flores

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“It took us about two minutes and we were over”: A migrant's comment on the effectiveness of the U.S. government's new steel fence near Sasabe.

Emilio Flores

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In the dying fields: A cross for the migrants who didn't make it through the desert

Emilio Flores

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A prayer for the road: At the Catholic church in Altar, Mexico

I was riding with a couple of other reporters and two members of the Samaritans, a church-based group from Tucson, whose volunteer mission is to aid migrants stranded in the no man’s land of the Arizona-Sonoran desert. We were in the deadliest section of the border. Of the estimated 500 people who died trying to walk into America last year, about half perished here in Arizona. And more than three dozen right in the 30-mile stretch the Samaritans were patrolling that morning.

The dark-haired man furtively motioning to us no doubt spotted the Samaritans emblem on the side of our car. And when we pulled over to his side of the road, he silently and quickly led us through the greasewood and shrubs about 50 yards from where we started. There, resting on the rocks under a scrawny tree, were nine more of his weathered, tired fellow trekkers, including two young women — one of them pregnant.

“We were abandoned by our coyote,” the young man told us, referring to the smuggler who had taken more than $1,000 from each of them with the promise of getting them across the border.

“On our second night walking,” the young man said in Spanish typical of impoverished southern Mexico, “[the coyote] said he was going ahead to get us food. He never came back.”

The Samaritans, as they always do, offered to help the migrants seek medical aid or turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. This group hungrily tore into the high-energy snacks and bottled water carried by the Samaritans but, as is most often the case, declined the help and decided to venture on.

“We have no idea how we’re going to do it, and we have no money left,” said one of the other migrants. “But we have contacts in Phoenix and L.A. and we’re going to get there, God permitting.”

There’s nothing earthshaking about bumping into a clump of undocumented Mexican border crossers down in this part of the world. More than a thousand a day, almost half a million a year, continue to elude the personnel and machinery of an ever-beefier U.S. Border Patrol as they enter this zone immediately south of Tucson.

What was remarkable is that we ran into this particular group barely a two-minute drive from the just-constructed, 15-foot-high multimillion-dollar fence that is a showcase of the Bush administration’s vaunted Secure Border Initiative. The same wall that both parties in Congress have recently embraced as the answer to stemming illegal immigration. Moreover, the group we found — right off the main road leading from the official U.S. port of entry at Sasabe — was but a few clicks away from one of the nine highly touted prototype electronic-surveillance towers that the U.S. government paid the Boeing Company $20 million to build along a 28-mile run of the border.

In other words, the small group of migrants we spoke to had not only just jumped the newest section of the government’s physical fence, they had also dodged the high-tech “virtual fence,” loaded with the latest gadgets and software.

“We got over the fence with a rope,” said the migrant who had flagged us down. “It took about two minutes and we were over.”

I have no doubt that this man was telling the truth. In fact, the very same notion occurred to me a half-hour earlier, when our group of reporters was given a close-up look at the new 7-mile stretch of fence running through Sasabe. Instead of the rusting plates of corrugated and Swiss-cheesed Vietnam War–era steel that constitutes the older patches of the 300 miles of southern border wall, the new fencing is built of individual steel posts, about 6 inches in diameter, mounted about 8 inches apart. You can’t climb it. You can’t cut through it. But someone, for some reason, decided that near the top of these parallel posts there should run a horizontal crossbar. Not only does the bar reinforce the entire structure, it also provides the perfect device over which to loop a rope and defeat the barrier.


“Couldn’t you just throw a rope over that and tie it to itself?” pondered an Arizona-based reporter as we eyed the fence that morning.

Apparently so.

Two years after the unprecedented upsurge of immigrant-rights marches that rocked Los Angeles and several other American cities, after two failed attempts by the Senate to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform program, and with the country now knee-deep in a countercycle of stepped-up enforcement at an ever-mounting cost to taxpayers, the flow of undocumented migrants into the U.S. continues unabated. And the battery of big-ticket, high-profile policing solutions, now at the core of national immigration policy, seems to be failing.

“Our policy can be stated in five words,” says Dr. Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “‘Spend more on border enforcement.’”

A lot more. The $20 million awarded to Boeing to build those nine model towers was but a small piece of the $860 million granted to the defense giant to provide enhanced border-security infrastructure — all that going ahead even after the Department of Homeland Security admitted in late April that those first nine towers had failed and were being shut down. Add to that some $2 billion that will be spent on building 700 miles of fence — that, in turn, will cover only 30 percent of the U.S.’s southern border. Millions in additional money is earmarked to more than quadruple the size of the Border Patrol from the 3,500 agents it fielded 20 years ago. And then there’s the fleet of unarmed drones, the upgraded vehicle barriers, sensors, scopes and remote cameras, as well as the eventual chain of some 1,800 surveillance towers that will stretch from San Diego to Brownsville.

“None of this makes any difference,” says Cornelius, a world-class demographer who meticulously tracks migration patterns. “Toughened border enforcement doesn’t keep undocumented migrants out of the United States. All it does is raise the prices charged by the smugglers.”

Emilio Flores

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Rough road ahead: The Sonoran Desert

Emilio Flores

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Hope's trail: Walking to the USA

Emilio Flores

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Rest stop: The Samaritans' Mary Goethals, center, gives comfort and aid to two migrants; the woman at right is four months' pregnant.

Not only do 45 percent of illegal aliens living here enter legally and simply overstay their visas, but those who jump the border on foot are not deterred by more punitive measures. Cornelius cites a study he conducted of a so-called “active sender community” in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. More than 90 percent of those surveyed said they considered crossing the border “very dangerous,” and 24 percent claimed to know someone who had died trying. But no significant number said that knowledge would keep them from trying to cross. “The success rate of those trying to get across was 98 percent in 1995,” says Cornelius. “And in 2005 to 2007, it was still 98 percent.”

On any afternoon of the week, in the cavernous special-hearings chamber of the federal court in Tucson, it’s possible to witness one of the more absurd, and pointless, immigration-enforcement efforts of the Bush administration. With so many migrants pushing across the border nightly, the prevailing policy has been to catch and release first-time offenders. Even those who have been apprehended a half-dozen times or more are generally fingerprinted and photographed at a Border Patrol station and then, a mere few hours later, after signing a “voluntary departure” agreement, dumped back across the Mexican border.

Now a pilot program, started two years ago in Texas, with the aim of prosecuting and jailing those nabbed at the border, is being tried in Arizona. The federal government calls it Operation Streamline. Defense attorneys and policy critics call it an outrageous travesty of American justice.

Just after lunchtime on a recent Thursday, 42 dark-skinned men — almost all Mexicans, a few of them Central Americans; some middle-aged but most of them in their 20s or younger — are ushered en masse into the Tucson courtroom. Bound in shackles and chains, unshowered and hair uncombed, dressed in the same dark clothes in which they were apprehended and under the armed guard of two green-uniformed Border Patrol agents, they are all seated on the courtroom’s left side. The headphones they are offered so that they can hear the simultaneous translation give the whole spectacle a touch-of-Nuremberg feel.


The defendants shout out “¡Presente!” as their names are called by a clerk. After the roll call is taken, defense attorneys — most of them court-appointed and a sprinkle of federal defenders — immediately stand to correct the misspellings of several names.

“Do all of you understand your petty offense carries a maximum penalty of 180 days?” asks the judge, who does little to hide his absolute boredom with the whole affair.

¡Si!” say the seated defendants in unison.

“You all understand that you have the right to plead innocent and the right to a trial?” asks the judge.


“There’s a right to call witnesses.”


“You understand you have the right to remain silent?”


And then comes the core of what is, indeed, a streamlined exercise in jurisprudence, if not justice itself. “Have you all decided to waive your right to a trial?” the judge asks, with no suspense in his voice.

¡Si!”answers the handcuffed mass.

“Has anyone forced you or coerced you to enter your plea?”

“No!” the defendants shout back.

Next, each defendant is called upon to stand, and each one pleads “culpable” — guilty — to the charge of illegal entry into the U.S. In groups of five and six, they are then summoned forward by the judge for sentencing. A few defendants with prior criminal records in the U. S. are sentenced to a couple of weeks or longer in jail. But nobody else — and this is where the real charade begins.

For each group, the judge asks the federal prosecutors for their recommendation. And the prosecutors routinely ask for a minimum of 10 days in jail. The judge, however, is barely listening. His mind is already made up. As soon as the prosecutors finish speaking, the judge taps his gavel and simply says, “Time served.”

In most cases, the migrants have been held for 48 hours. Now they are set free. Or, more precisely, they are loaded onto a government-chartered bus and driven for an hour to the border, across which they are booted. In any case, it’s no additional jail time. It’s catch, hold in a bucket, and then release.

“The goal of this program isn’t really to stop illegal immigration,” says one disgusted Arizona judge who hears these Operation Streamline cases. “It’s just about moving the flow to our east or our west. People come here to eat, and they are going to keep coming here. Our government says it’s building a virtual fence. The problem is, Mexico isn’t sending in virtual Mexicans.”

Currently, the federal authorities in Tucson are prosecuting 50 migrants a day. Though the system can’t handle even that amount, and though virtually no one goes to jail, the goal is to get to 100 prosecutions per day by the end of the year. And the Department of Homeland Security says it wants sentences of 30 days as an effective deterrent.

“The courts don’t have the capacity, there aren’t enough beds and there isn’t enough money,” says UCSD’s Cornelius. “To make this happen, you’d need to build a virtual gulag of concentration camps in the Southwest.”

There hardly seems any threat of that scenario, as the mere 50 prosecutions a day have all but broken the court system in Tucson already. There aren’t enough holding cells. The probation office has had to vacate the courthouse to make room for additional detainees. The U. S. Marshals Service doesn’t have enough agents to guard them and is paying a private contractor at least $18,000 a week to help out. And even the Department of Justice doesn’t have enough federal prosecutors for the extra load. The five prosecutors whose pleas for jail time get dismissed every afternoon in the Tucson court are on-loan U.S. Border Patrol attorneys with no real trial experience. The federal defender provides two defense lawyers per session. But the court has to hire as many as 14 private attorneys a day to go through every motion.

“I am the most impotent person in this whole system,” says Tucson’s First Assistant Federal Defender, Heather Williams. In her modest offices a few blocks from the courthouse, she offers an Inconvenient Truth–class PowerPoint on the “baffling complexities” of federal immigration-prosecution policy. But she uses a game-show analogy to describe the rather stark simplicity of Operation Streamline. “Think of it as Deal or No Deal,” Williams says. “Twenty-four hours after their arrest, a federal defender gets a total of 20 minutes per client. This isn’t justice. It’s rubber-stamping. Most of these people have walked two or three days through the desert. Some are dehydrated. They haven’t slept, they’re in a borderline mental condition, there’s no bail, and you’re sitting at a table with them where they have 20 minutes to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives.”


Emilio Flores

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Gimme shelter: A Guatemalan family at one of the “hospedajes” in the Mexican border town of Altar

“How would you feel,” Williams continues, “if you went to Mexico, got arrested, didn’t speak the language and had only 20 minutes to talk to an attorney you don’t know and who tells you to plead guilty?”

One Border Patrol spokesman defended the program to local reporters but also seemed to unwittingly buttress the arguments made by the disgusted judge who claimed that Operation Streamline is ineffective in stopping the migrant flow. “The biggest bang for our buck is deterrence,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jesus Rodriguez. “It’s sending a message that if you get caught, you’re going to get prosecuted; so you’re not going to try it.”

But Rodriguez then added: “Some of these folks are no longer coming back into this area. They’re going out to other sectors.” In other words, the flow — as usual — is only being diverted elsewhere.

While the Bush administration and its Department of Homeland Security continue to pressure Arizona to accelerate its enforcement crackdowns, the state itself might be having second thoughts. There’s some speculation that Operation Streamline — instead of being expanded — might be quietly rolled back in the next few months. At the same time, legislators are now searching for politically palatable ways to undo the mess created by a recent state law that imposes the use of a computerized worker-verification system and exposes employers to the loss of their business licenses if they hire an illegal alien.

A rash of labor shortages, costing potentially astronomic sums, has ripped through the state as more and more Mexican migrants — once they are safely across the Arizona border — simply move on to less hostile employment environments, in California, New Mexico or just about anywhere else in the country. Some estimate that the new law may eventually affect as much as 8 percent of the labor force of Arizona, a state where unemployment rarely hits half that number.

Likewise, in mid-May, as was first reported by our sister paper the Phoenix New Times, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano finally got fed up with the anti-immigrant antics of the notorious rogue sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio. The self-proclaimed “meanest sheriff in the world” had deployed a whopping 160 members of his Phoenix-area force to a so-called border unit. And after some cross-training with federal immigration agents, Arpaio’s deputies were swarming through Latino neighborhoods of greater Phoenix, rousting those they could on minor infractions and questioning their immigration status.

In an executive order signed on May 12, Napolitano shifted elsewhere much of the funding used by Arpaio’s immigration unit. While she denied she had targeted Arpaio, the sheriff reacted angrily to the funding cutoff.

Arpaio’s raids had sparked a war of words, not only with local immigration advocates and with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, but also with some local police officials who roundly and publicly criticized Arpaio’s operations. Foremost among Arpaio’s law-enforcement critics has been George Gascon, former assistant chief of the LAPD and now chief of police in Mesa, a large Phoenix suburb in Maricopa County. One of the most enlightened police officials in the U.S., Gascon — as a critic of Arpaio — has become a lightning rod for Minutemen-like xenophobic groups.

“I’m extremely concerned about the area of civil rights,” Gascon told L.A. Weekly. “As this [anti-immigrant] train moves forward, I just don’t hear enough anger, enough of an outcry that people are basically being arrested on the basis of race, a basic violation of the 14th Amendment.”

“We’re taking a whole generation of police officers,” the Cuban-born Gascon says, “and we’re culturizing them into an entire culture in conflict with the Constitution. My fears are that here in Arizona, as we engage in an era of employer sanctions and police roundups, people who need to work are going to be ushered into criminal activity. It’s just not realistic to think people coming from Latin America are going to self-deport. That’s just incredibly stupid.”

For the past handful of years, it’s been a simple, if quite bumpy, drive down a 60-mile rutted dirt road leading south from the border post of Sasabe to the Sonoran town of Altar — a central launching pad for Mexican migrants heading to the U.S. It’s in Altar that they make their connections with their coyotes, or polleros, and are fed assembly-line style into the vast smuggling pipelines that discharge in the car washes of El Monte and the poultry plants of the Carolinas.


And it’s no accident that the new piece of border fence we visited was constructed smack-dab at Sasabe, the dusty border town where that road connects to Altar. A year or two ago, before the heightened enforcement push in the Tucson sector of the border, as many as 2,000 migrants, packed into vans carrying 20 or more, poured into the U.S. from Altar each and every day and then fanned out into the deserts and cities beyond.

Now, that ride isn’t so simple. Not because of the American border fence, but because of the spreading grip of drug cartels along the Mexican borderlands. For the first time in five years, I was warned specifically not to travel that direct road to Altar but rather to take a much longer, more circuitous route into the nondescript town that some grimly call “the gateway to the American Dream.”

The narcos now firmly control the old dirt road that is the most direct route from Altar to Arizona. And it’s not just here, south of Tucson. In the first three months of this year, more than 200 people were killed in drug-related massacres in Juarez, just across from El Paso. On April 27, 17 people were shot dead in a wild drug-war shootout on a main thoroughfare in Tijuana. The mounting chaos only drives more immigrants into the U.S.

“The narcos are now charging $50 a head for the migrants going up that road,” says Enrique Zelaya, a staff member at the Catholic-run shelter for migrants in Altar. “Last year, they burned 30 vans along that road, and they kidnapped 150 migrants,” he adds. But not even this deters the migrant flow. The van drivers who make the run up the road, and were parked in a line along Altar’s colonial plaza, all confirmed that they have raised the fare to the border from $10 to $60 a head over the past year.

Just off the plaza, I make the rounds of the tenement-like flophouses that charge five or 10 dollars a night to stack migrants on plywood bunk beds, or simply stow them on the floor. There is no question that the numbers are down from a couple of years ago. Where there might have been a hundred people or so crowded into one of these human warehouses, there are now maybe 30 or 40.

Nobody knows why. It might be that the bursting of the housing bubble in the U.S. means that fewer construction jobs are available. Or that migrant routes are shifting back toward Yuma, and even back into California, especially around Mexicali. More people are trudging through the mountains to the east in New Mexico, I’m told.

What we do know, what I can see for myself, is that there’s a greater percentage of women and children than ever before among the migrants jammed into the dank rooms of the flophouses, the ill-named “guesthouses” that dot the streets of Altar.

When I get back to Arizona and meet with him in Tucson, Wayne Cornelius offers a straightforward explanation. “Border enforcement has failed to keep people out of the country,” he says. “But it has been quite successful in keeping them in.”

As it has become more perilous to cross the border, more and more migrants who used to cycle in and out of the U.S. now stay here. The increased numbers of women and children I saw in the Altar holding pens were coming to join their husbands and fathers, who were bunkered in the U.S.

So great is the push to migrate north from Mexico and Central America — an hour’s wages in California are worth a day of labor in Veracruz — that, Cornelius predicts, a U.S. policy based completely on erroneous assumptions will continue to fail.

“As more enforcement pressure is being placed on land borders,” Cornelius says, “we are seeing a deflection toward maritime borders, especially in California. More than 20 smugglers’ boats have been found in Southern California since August 2007. I’ve been predicting this for a long time. And now it’s happening. Our government is building a border fence, but we’re already into the era of maritime people smuggling.”

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