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An Often-Crossed Line in the Sand

Upgraded Security at U.S. Border Hasn't Deterred Illegal Immigration From Mexico

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page A01

LAS CHEPAS, Mexico -- An ancient blue school bus pulled up at Erlinda Juarez Martinez's house one recent afternoon, and 20 poor farmers wearing jeans and baseball caps hopped off. They had traveled for days to reach this village of crumbling adobe homes, separated from the United States by nothing but a few strands of barbed wire and a dirty desert breeze.

Every hour, mud-caked buses and pickup trucks dropped off other new loads of travelers, their backpacks filled with tortillas and toilet paper, their heads filled with dreams of America. For them, Las Chepas was a locker room of illegal immigration, a place to find food, water, traveling companions and a guide.


U.S. Border Patrol agent Jack T. Jeffreys, in uniform, with a group of men who were stopped from entering the country illegally from Mexico. If the apprehended immigrants do not have a criminal record in the United States, they are driven back to the border and released into Mexico. (Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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One of the men on the porch was Jesus Alonzo Camacho, 44. He and six friends had left home in Michoacan state, where they earn about $6 a day working in the fields. "We can't support ourselves at home; we need the money from the other side," Camacho said. His only plan was to slip across the border and walk north until he found someone to give him work. "Anyone," he said. "Anywhere."

Facing Camacho and the others across a nearby ditch was an astounding high-tech spiderweb spun by the U.S. Border Patrol in New Mexico. Motion sensors were buried in the ground. High-resolution infrared cameras were mounted on poles, able to spot people five miles off. A man hiding in the dark would pop up larger than life on video monitors 35 miles away, so detailed that technicians could see him sneeze.

On the ground, agents in big sport-utility vehicles were armed with night-vision goggles and satellite global positioning devices. Helicopters buzzed up and down the border, shining powerful spotlights. U.S. Army units preparing to head for Iraq were holding exercises here, catching illegal immigrants with precision surveillance equipment designed for war.

Every day of the year, such high-tech barricades help U.S. authorities catch more than 3,000 people along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Yet despite the unprecedented investment in technology and manpower, illegal immigrants are still coming in waves -- and their numbers are increasing.

Apprehensions Up Sharply

A decade ago, the United States began trying to fortify the border, starting with Operation Gatekeeper in 1994. Since then, U.S. officials have added more patrols, lights and walls every year, especially since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet instead of stopping illegal immigration, those measures have just made many Mexicans already in the United States stay longer, according to Mexican officials.

U.S. officials made 1.1 million apprehensions along the border last year, a 24 percent increase over the year before. It is unclear whether the rising apprehensions signify that more people are trying to cross or that a greater percentage are being caught. But experts in both countries estimate that perhaps 500,000 or more still make it through each year.

Because it has proved impossible to jail the huge numbers of immigrants who cross the border illegally each year, Border Patrol officials are focusing on identifying and arresting those with criminal records and watching for potential terrorists.

The officials said they have caught more than 53,000 people with criminal records -- including about 9,000 felony offenders -- since September, when a new computerized system was started to allow agents to quickly check a migrant's background against the FBI's database. The vast majority do not have criminal records, however. They are simply driven to the border and released into Mexico, where many keep crossing until they succeed.

"What we're doing is not working," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and border security, said in a telephone interview. "I don't believe you can build a wall high enough or wide enough to keep out people who have no hope or opportunity where they live."

How to better manage the contentious issue of immigration will top the agenda when President Bush meets with Mexican President Vicente Fox later this month in Texas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit Mexico on Thursday to take up the issue.

Bush has advocated a large-scale guest worker program that would allow Mexicans to work legally in the United States for several years and then return home. Cornyn said he believed Bush and both parties in Congress were serious about trying to enact some type of temporary worker program, while at the same time strengthening border security against potential terrorists.

Mexican workers in the United States, including millions of illegal immigrants, are vital to the Mexican economy, sending a record $17 billion home last year. Mexico cannot create enough jobs for the more than 1 million young people who enter the workforce each year, making crossing the border as alluring as ever -- no matter how much the United States fortifies it.


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