Alien Crossings
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The American Spectator—October 2000

Ask ranchers along America's border with Mexico what's been going on, and they'll say "Invasion!"

Olga Robles and her husband Frank live just eight blocks from the international boundary that separates Douglas, Arizona, from the Mexican city of Agua Prieta. For years men have illegally crossed the border on their way north looking for work. Mrs. Robles said she frequently saw them pass through town in pairs or in small groups. Then about two years ago the trickle swelled to a flood with groups of thirty to well over a hundred people at a time pouring across the border, hurrying through alleys, through people's yards and between their houses, climbing over roofs and clambering over graves in the cemetery. They knocked down fences, trampled flowers and shrubs, and cluttered neighborhoods with litter. They came in groups all day long and in a steady stream throughout the night while dogs in town barked till dawn. In frustration Mrs. Robles finally told the authorities, "If you can't do anything about the trespassers, then at least shoot the dogs so I can get some sleep."

Besides the surging numbers Mrs. Robles noticed something else. No longer were the migrants just men looking for work; now there were women and children as well, whole families illegally crossing and streaming north. "That's when I realized it was an invasion," she said. Indeed "invasion" is a word frequently heard along the border, and official statistics show why. In the first six months of this year, the U.S. border patrol apprehended 176,655 illegal aliens in the 21-mile Douglas section of the border alone.

There is no accurate way of extrapolating from those figures how many people actually made it across, since for every one illegal apprehended the border patrol estimates that three to five get away. The same individual may be apprehended more than once before finally getting in. But according to think tank and government experts, since 1983 about half a million a year have managed to enter the United States illegally along the southern border.

Before 1994 the urban corridors of El Paso, Texas and San Diego, California accounted for two-thirds of the illegal entries. San Diego was the most notorious, and it was in California that the volume eventually produced a political reaction. The international boundary in San Diego sharply separates the teeming residential sprawl of the Mexican city of Tijuana from the undeveloped canyons and ravines of the southern end of San Diego. For years this neglected zone was a dangerous no man's land known for its lawlessness and violence. Illegal entrants were robbed every night and often raped and murdered by Mexican bandits and sometimes by Mexican policemen or criminals operating under their protection. The flavor of those violent times has been caught by Joseph Wambaugh in Lines and Shadows, a factual account of border crime in the 1970's and of the special unit formed by the San Diego Police Department in a futile attempt to combat it.

Throughout the 1980's and early 90's the 14-mile stretch of border in San Diego was hostile, violent, and out of control. Border patrol agents use terms like "chaos" and "anarchy" to describe it, saying that they faced riot conditions every night. Crowds would gather on the Tijuana side and pelt border-patrol agents with rocks. Shots were sometimes fired across the border at patrolling agents, and almost daily thousands of Mexicans would gather on the U.S. side, then dash forward en masse in what were known as banzai runs.

The influx of illegal aliens into southern California, and its mounting cost to taxpayers, spawned a political reaction. It took the form of a popular initiative, Proposition 187, which would deny public services to anyone residing illegally in the state. The same public sentiment that assured an overwhelming victory for Prop. 187 in 1994 (with 59 percent of the vote) also resuscitated Gov. Pete Wilson's flagging re-election campaign, eventually carrying him to victory.

It was in El Paso, however, that the first attempt to regain control of the border was undertaken. In 1994 Silvestre Reyes, then chief of the El Paso sector of the border patrol and now a U.S. congressman, devised a plan called Operation Blockade, later renamed Hold the Line. It focused not on apprehension once illegals had crossed the border, but rather on deterring them from trying to cross in the first place. Operation Hold the Line combined fences, technology, and close monitoring by agents stationed along the border. The result was a significant drop in illegal entry and other crimes in the El Paso area.

That same year similar measures were taken in San Diego under the name of Operation Gatekeeper. There too illegal entry was sharply reduced and crime dropped, not only in the border zone itself but for the entire San Diego area. Another effect of Gatekeeper, however, was that illegal migration simply flowed to the east beyond the reach of Gatekeeper, spilling into the eastern part of San Diego County, thus creating problems for rural property owners there. People all along the border call this the balloon effect: Squeeze it in one place and it bulges in another. Cut down the flow of illegals in El Paso or San Diego, and it moves to places like Douglas and from there to ranch lands and ever deeper into the desert beyond. In other words, despite relief in the urban corridors the overall problem remains unsolved. The border patrol, which apprehended a record 1.6 million illegal entrants in fiscal 1999, says it's "on pace" to exceed that number in fiscal 2000.

The incentive for migration into the United States is the availability of low-skill jobs here and poverty, low wages, and an expanding population in Mexico and Central America. What helps drive it, though, are networks created and maintained between expatriate communities in the U.S. and their home towns and regions abroad. Expatriate communities serve to attract, support, and absorb newcomers, thus providing an important part of the magnet that pulls them north. This population transfer would not be possible without the existence of an organized and lucrative smuggling industry involving millions of dollars each year.

Illegal migrants do not simply show up at the border and then cross over. They first arrange a reception with friends and relatives in the U.S. who line up jobs for them and who often advance them the cost of the trip. The migrant or his U.S. relatives or friends then contract with a smuggler not only for the border crossing itself, but also for safe houses and necessary transportation along the way. Women and children are sometimes brought to the border in cattle trucks, and on the U.S. side aliens are often packed into vans like sardines. In Douglas, Arizona, a town of 15,000, there's been a sudden rise in taxi services.

The current cost for illegal entry is said to be $1,500 a head. For Central Americans the cost and risk are even greater, since they must first illegally cross Mexico's southern border, and then clandestinely travel the entire length of that country before arriving at the U.S. border. Mexico has strict immigration laws of its own and does not want aliens working illegally in the country. When caught, the alien sometimes suffers abuse at the hands of Mexican police that would not be tolerated in the U.S.

Once established in this country and employed in some low-paying job, the illegal alien usually lives frugally, often no better than at home, until he has paid off his debt. He then generally contributes to the entry of others in the same way he himself has entered. Thus as migrant communities grow in the United States the magnet for illegal immigration becomes more powerful. And as more money is pumped into the smuggling enterprise, that illegal industry continues to thrive and grow.

As a commercial activity, alien smuggling is sensitive to the business climate. Once Hold the Line and Gatekeeper made crossing in urban areas more difficult, smugglers eventually identified Douglas as a corridor through which the trade could be channeled with much less risk. The town lies on the Pan American Highway that connects the interiors of Mexico and the United States. Its "twin city" Agua Prieta on the Mexican side provides a convenient staging ground for illegal crossing. Those advantages, together with a lightly guarded border, turned unsuspecting Douglas in 1994 into the main crossing point of a massive and lucrative international smuggling operation. As one journalist observed, the authorities and citizens of that small border town were suddenly confronted by a "global population shift passing through their back yards" for which none of them was prepared.

The mob scene through Douglas finally ceased once a strengthened and illuminated fence was erected, and once the border patrol had beefed up its presence in town. The stream of migrants, however, did not stop but simply flowed around Douglas, mainly to the west where ranch lands with water tanks and a network of roads facilitate this kind of mass smuggling operation. Ranchers and other rural property owners then began to experience what the rural population of eastern San Diego County experienced a few years earlier. The ranchers complained about fences broken daily by crowds of migrants, about gates left open leaving cattle free to stray, about cattle that were killed, watchdogs poisoned, water tanks drained, buildings broken into, and property stolen. One rancher estimates that the cost of constant repairs has run into tens of thousands of dollars. And everywhere there is the trash: piles of empty plastic water bottles, food wrappers, dirty diapers, clothing, feces, toilet paper, anything left by masses of people on the move. Indeed if you saw nothing but the litter you could well believe that a mass migration is underway.

The cost and bother of constant trespass and the fear of theft and burglary have meant that many rural people in Cochise County, where Douglas is located, are now arming themselves. Warning shots have been fired and many are worried that something worse might happen. What frightens the ranchers most, however, is not the aliens but rather drug smugglers. These are well-armed men, some carrying fully automatic weapons. Ranchers in both San Diego and Cochise Counties have reported seeing armed men on the U.S. side of the border, military in appearance, dressed in black, and armed with automatic rifles.

Some believe that they are from the Mexican army acting in support of smugglers. Whether they are or not, however, Mexican army units and armed police are frequently reported entering U.S. territory, a violation that evokes angry response when U.S. authorities stray across the border into Mexico. Ron Sanders was for five years the chief of the Tucson sector of the border patrol until his retirement in August 1999. Hardly a month goes by, he said, without some kind of incursion by Mexican police or military. Sometimes shooting is involved. He recalls an armed stand-off on the U.S. side of the border between the Nogales police and the Mexican army.

The latest publicized incursion took place in March near Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Two Mexican army Humvees penetrated more than a mile into the United States and fired on a mounted border patrolman and on a border-patrol vehicle. The soldiers were detained but were later returned to Mexico along with their weapons. There was no official protest from Washington, even though firing on a U.S. law officer is a felony offense.

Drug smugglers often use lonely and difficult trails through the mountains, or go on horseback through more remote parts of the desert. At times they mingle with groups of aliens, or follow them for cover. On occasion they also use aliens as "mules" to carry drugs across the border in payment for their passage. One rancher near Douglas tells of a young illegal who knocked at a neighbor's door one night. The young man had slipped away from his group because its guide had forced them all to carry illicit drugs. Fearing they might all end up killed, he ran to the nearest house begging the rancher to call the police.

As the situation near Douglas worsened, some of the ranchers decided to take action on their own. Roger Barnett owns a 22,000-acre ranch outside Douglas. Soon he and his brother Don, like his neighbor Larry Vance and others, began rounding up aliens on their property and holding them until the border patrol arrived to arrest them. Advocacy groups howled in protest, as did the Mexican government. Their lawyers demanded that the ranchers be prosecuted for false arrest, kidnapping, intimidation, criminal assault, violation of civil rights, in short anything lawyers can come up with to advance their clients' interests. Larry Vance retorted that "the only rights that have been violated are those of American citizens whose privacy, property, and nation are invaded from Mexico."

Rosario Green, Mexico's foreign minister, voiced concern about the "intolerant expression of some American ranchers who promote the persecution of migrants along the border." Green declared a "red alert," and the Mexican government hired Washington lawyers to look into the possibility of a civil suit against the ranchers. All the while the Mexican press demonized the ranchers as "racist xenophobic vigilantes" who hunted down innocent Mexican migrants like animals. Vance emphasizes that nobody blames the aliens, nobody's mad at them, and nobody hates them. In fact, his father came from Mexico in 1939, as did Olga Robles's grandparents in 1903. Indeed many residents of Cochise County are of Mexican descent. The problem is not one of race or nationality, but of violations of the rights of American citizens by an illegal enterprise acting in the United States from Mexican territory.


Rural property owners in Cochise County are not the only U.S. citizens affected by the mass smuggling of drugs and aliens. A hundred miles further west lies the Tohono O'odham (formerly the Papago) Indian reservation, which shares a 71-mile border with Mexico. It is the second largest reservation in the country, with a population of 22,000 scattered over a million square miles of scrub brush and tall, graceful Sahuaro cactus.

Larry Seligman is chief of the Tohono O'odham police. Like his counterparts in neighboring border communities he complains about the large numbers of illegals crossing his jurisdiction. They come in groups of well over a hundred, he says, the largest he has encountered numbering one hundred sixty-four. Like the ranchers of Cochise County, those Tohono O'odham living near the border are afraid to leave their homes for fear of break-ins, and those living along the migrant trails are disturbed by the crowds passing only yards from their homes, "violating their space" as Seligman puts it, and leaving the inevitable trail of trash behind them. The Tohono O'odham revere the environment, says Seligman, and are especially offended when they see it defiled in this manner.

The National Park Service also reveres the environment. Its credo is "to preserve and protect." There are two national parks along the border in Arizona: the Coronado National Memorial in Cochise County, which runs nearly three and a half miles along the border, and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument adjacent to the Tohono O'odham reservation, which shares a 31-mile border with Mexico. Jim Bellamy, superintendent of the Coronado National Memorial, says that the passage of illegals in the park area has increased by some 300 percent in the last two years. Such large numbers not only threaten the reserve, he says, but in the case of drug smuggling, pose a potential hazard to visitors and park personnel.

William Wellman, superintendent of Organ Pipe, estimates that 40,000 to 80,000 illegals passed through the national memorial last year. Although most of the land is designated wilderness, Wellman told the Associated Press that "it's hard to go anywhere and not see evidence of trash. We pick it up by the hundreds." Monument spokeswoman Mitzi Frank says that smugglers drive through the fragile desert in cars unsuited for the country. They get stuck and the Park Service has to call tow trucks to remove the abandoned vehicles, thus further damaging the environment. All along the migrant routes vegetation is trampled and the soil is compacted resulting in scars to the landscape that will last for centuries.

If all this is hard on the environment and on U.S. citizens, it can be far worse on the migrants themselves. Once they get to the border they are helpless in a strange and hostile environment, often suffering from bandits on the Mexican side and sometimes abandoned on the U.S. side by their guides, not knowing where they are, how to deal with the desert they must traverse, nor what to do next except walk northward in the murderous hundred-degree heat, hoping that far-off Phoenix lies just over the next hill. Tohono O'odham Police Chief Seligman says that his patrols have found people wearing street clothes and street shoes wandering helpless in the desert, who ran to police begging for water.

Some migrants, however, do not make it. Some have drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande River in Texas or the All America Canal in California; others have died of cold in the mountains in winter or of dehydration in the desert; still others are injured or die in accidents in overcrowded vans carrying them north from the border. Official border-patrol figures show that migrant deaths along the southern border from October 1, 1998 to July 21, 2000 total 756. That figure will certainly have grown by summer's end.


Some despair of ever getting control of the border. Others, however, are convinced the number of illegals could be greatly reduced with the right combination of fences, all-weather roads, technology, and adequate staffing adapted in different mixes to the different environments of the border. But these measures would only work if backed up by mobile patrols behind the border and by interior enforcement. This means regular worksite inspection, worker validation, employer sanctions, and deportations. Such an integrated and consistent policy would send the message through the migrant networks that illegal entry is risky and that apprehension is a strong possibility once across the border.

In 1994, the same year as Proposition 187, the border patrol devised a comprehensive multi-phased plan to retake control of the border. The plan has failed, however, mainly for lack of resources. But the bigger problem is that internal enforcement of immigration laws under the Clinton administration has for all intents ceased. Ron Sanders, former Tucson border patrol section chief, while admitting to staffing problems in a booming economy and high attrition rates among border patrol agents, says that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has no commitment to enforcing border or immigration policy.

This opinion is echoed by other border patrol personnel and advocates of immigration reform. In the Clinton years, most agree, border control has given way to damage control. When hot spots erupt, such as in southern Arizona, the INS simply moves border patrol agents from other sectors to try to put a lid on the situation. As a result interior border-patrol sectors are closed down so that their personnel can be transferred south. Meanwhile, agents are transferred from San Diego on a rolling basis for thirty days' service in Arizona, thus weakening the San Diego sector. Agents and air surveillance units have also been transferred from the Canadian border to the southwest, leaving northern stations undermanned and without the aircraft they need.

Where one supervisory agent in San Diego calls these shifts "crisis management," Larry Dever, sheriff of Cochise County, terms them a shell game, with his county as the pea. Given incoherent enforcement and the obvious lack of will on the part of the federal government, smugglers easily detect where they can best direct the flow of migrants. The stream thus continues unabated.

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies blames not only the Clinton administration, but Congress as well—for not enforcing the very immigration laws it has passed. By refusing to fund serious crackdowns on companies known to hire illegals, it leaves the INS without the manpower necessary for such operations. Even worse, Congress actually interferes with the INS when it does try to enforce the law. In 1998 the INS raided scattered farm laborers during onion harvest in Vidalia, Georgia. "Within days," Krikorian says, "both Georgia senators and three representatives wrote Attorney General Janet Reno fiercely criticizing the INS for 'lack of regard for farmers.'" Such "none-too-subtle messages" from Congress, Krikorian says, eventually put an end to INS worksite enforcement.

The majority of Americans favor immigration control. This includes half the Latino population. Yet the addiction of American agriculture and some industries to cheap foreign labor creates contradictory interests within the country and an attempt by the government to cover both bases at once. Thus we see the passage of restrictive laws and border shell games to keep the public quiet (no one of either party wants another Proposition 187), while at the same time underfunding enforcement and turning a blind eye so that business can continue as usual.

The result is what Krikorian describes as a pro-immigration and an anti-immigrant policy. According to Krikorian, Republican Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, epitomizes this contradiction. He opposes illegal migration and advocates stricter border enforcement, but then does everything possible to assure that once aliens have run the gauntlet they can find jobs and remain unmolested in the U.S., thereby increasing the pull of the magnet north.

The problem is further complicated by other factors. One is labor unions and their political backers. Where until recently unions backed immigration restrictions, they now favor amnesty for illegal workers, which only increases the flow of low-skilled workers north. Faced with declining membership, unions now actively recruit among people they know are here illegally. Then there is the "huddled masses" mindset, an abstracted and sentimentalized vision of immigration that places immigration beyond the reach of rational debate. Finally, there is the kind of bullying the Cochise County ranchers know so well, namely accusations of "racism" when the defense of one's rights is not politically correct, or when one challenges economic and political interest groups that exploit immigration in one way or another.


Immigration as it is now structured, not just illegal immigration, poses problems that we must face sooner or later. Harvard economist George Borjas, himself an immigrant, provides some disturbing data. In his recent book Heaven's Door, Borjas writes that the present wave of immigrants is less educated and at an income level lower than was the case of previous immigrants. He also says that the massive influx of cheap labor from abroad drives down wages at the low end of the scale for both the native born and established immigrants. The net effect, he says, is that we are currently importing poverty into the United States.

Prospects for the progeny of immigrants at the low end of the income scale is bleak, Borjas argues, since the educational level of one generation affects that of subsequent generations. In an economy in which cognitive skills, developed and honed by education, are increasingly important, the progeny of growing numbers of less-educated immigrants will place them at long-term disadvantage they may not overcome. With public education failing both native-born minorities and middle-class families, the prospect is not good that public schools, the great engine of social change, will help the children of low-income immigrants overcome this handicap.

Historian Fred Siegel examines this prospect in his book, The Future Once Happened Here. The risk that "the pressure of being trapped in low-wage work without the educational skills to eventually move to the high-wage sector," he writes, "will generate tremendous resentment over time." We are thus threatened with the creation of "an immigrant driven underclass," the kind that will hinder assimilation into the mainstream and exacerbate tensions not only along economic and class lines, but along ethnic, racial, and perhaps linguistic lines as well.

A modern nation is a community of citizens defined by common rights and obligations. What transforms this legal abstraction into a real flesh and blood community is a common public culture, a common medium of discourse and a unifying collective identity. In this sense, says historian Benedict Anderson, a modern nation is an "imagined community," the product of a sustained act on the part of millions of people to constantly imagine what they all have in common despite the otherwise tremendous internal diversity that is inherent in any population of that size.

The mass migration we are now experiencing, of which the influx of illegals across the southern border is an important part, places tremendous strain on the nation so defined. In all respects the current situation is simply not sustainable, and its adverse effects, says Borjas, "will not go away simply because some people do not wish to see them." Instead, says Borjas, those effects will accumulate and in the long run their impact will be "much more perilous" than if we were to face them now. It is thus time to begin a long overdue debate on a rational immigration policy for the United States.

Glynn Custred is professor of anthropology at California State University, Hayward.

This article appeared in the October 2000 issue of The American Spectator.

October 2000

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