Despite Security and Dangers, Border Crossers Find Way North

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006

YUMA, Ariz. -- The Border Patrol radio crackled: "Four men rolling boulders at mile 11." Agent Chris Van Wagenen sped along an irrigation levee toward the rock pile, used to block smugglers and illegal immigrants from sneaking across the border.

The four men watched him coming, calmly tossing a few more boulders off the pile before sauntering through the sagebrush and crossing the Colorado River back into Mexico. By the time the agent had sprinted from his Ford Bronco toward the men, they had wrapped their faces in their shirts, and one of them shouted, "I'll be back."

Van Wagenen, panting, replied, "Of that, I'm sure. If it's a fence, a sensor, a camera, they'll find a way to defeat it."

Here, in this far southwestern corner of Arizona, which President Bush is to visit Thursday, the signs of the unintended consequences of a decade's worth of efforts to crack down on illegal crossings of the 2,000-mile border are clear.

Apprehensions of illegal immigrants are about the same as a decade ago. Mexicans and others continue to pour into the United States though it is now far more expensive and far more dangerous for them than ever. And once here, they are staying, turning border communities such as Yuma into boomtowns fueled by their cheap labor.

Bush's vow to tighten border security follows through on policies that began in the Clinton administration. Starting in 1993, the Border Patrol blockaded major urban crossing points from San Diego to El Paso, where large groups of immigrants simply dashed across in what were known as "banzai runs." In El Paso, agents continuously patrolled the Rio Grande, hoping to deter immigrants. A year later in San Diego, the government built a 10-foot-high steel fence for Operation Gatekeeper. Eventually, 106 miles of fencing was constructed near every metropolis along the border with Mexico.

But the illegal crossings have continued.

Gatekeeper and the other efforts did nothing to stem the tide of illegal entries to the United States. In fiscal 2005, the Border Patrol apprehended 1.1 million people, about the same as in 1993. Several academic studies have estimated that 500,000 got through, also the same as in 1993, despite the number of Border Patrol agents tripling to more than 11,000 in 12 years. But Gatekeeper and the rest of the deterrence campaign did have real effect: Instead of dashing across in urban areas, illegal immigrants turned to paths through the deserts of eastern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. They began employing "coyotes," smugglers who demanded thousands of dollars, to lead them and often traveled under hot sun with little water. More than 2,500 have died attempting such crossings in the past decade.

"We're the funnel point now," Van Wagenen, a four-year veteran, said of this swath of desert near Yuma. Last year, Border Patrol agents in this sector, which spans 120 miles of mostly barren desert, apprehended nearly 139,000 illegal immigrants. Apprehensions this year are up 15 percent over the same period last year.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted to put 370 miles of fencing along the border, and earlier this week Bush said more than 6,000 National Guard troops would be deployed to assist Border Patrol agents.

In the meantime, Gatekeeper has come to Yuma. Two months ago along a dusty stretch of border just east of the Colorado River, National Guard units constructed a secondary border fence topped with barbed wire a few yards from a 10-foot-high wall. Like its twin in San Diego, the fence is fashioned from steel mats used to build landing strips during the Vietnam War. Floodlights were erected and Border Patrol agents were assigned to guard the zone -- just a few yards from the San Luis border crossing.

"With this fence we plugged another hole," Van Wagenen said, adding, "There's always a hole somewhere."

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