Border Crackdown Has El Paso Caught in Middle

Sgt. Tony Briscoe of the Texas National Guard repairs the fence along the Rio Grande River. National Guard soldiers are paired with Border Patrol agents for the welding.
Sgt. Tony Briscoe of the Texas National Guard repairs the fence along the Rio Grande River. National Guard soldiers are paired with Border Patrol agents for the welding. (By Victor Calzada -- El Paso Times Via Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

EL PASO -- Leaders of this sunny desert city peppered Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during a recent visit with complaints about trade-crimping border-crossing delays, unwanted calls to enlist local police in enforcing immigration laws and recent deaths of immigrants at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol agents.

"Second-guessers and hindsighters," Chertoff retorted, defending such agents against critics who he said "have no idea how difficult it is here at the border."

But to many in El Paso, it is Washington's understanding of what it means to be on the border that is increasingly in question. As the political stalemate continues on how to revamp immigration laws, the Bush administration has taken aggressive new measures to tighten border security and deal more harshly with illegal immigrants.

And that has El Paso, just a stone's throw across the Rio Grande from the Mexican boomtown of Ciudad Juarez, feeling even more caught in the middle. "Most people in Washington really don't understand life on the border," said El Paso Mayor John Cook. "They don't understand our philosophy here that the border joins us together, it doesn't separate us."

Although many residents here are as staunchly opposed to illegal immigration as those elsewhere in the country, El Paso's deep ties to its sister city across the river generally make most of them leery of calls to wall off the 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico and of crackdowns that might complicate border crossings and harm a mutually beneficial way of life.

As the largest U.S. city on the border, El Paso has long had a front-row seat to the complexities and trade-offs of the nation's immigration laws. Founded by the Spanish before the English settlement of Jamestown and Plymouth, and with claims to creating both the margarita and Thanksgiving, El Paso-Juarez is an easygoing but hardworking region that has grown into a "borderplex" of 2 million residents.

Now North America's fourth-largest manufacturing hub -- after Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth -- El Paso and Juarez's surrounding state of Chihuahua have 270,000 manufacturing jobs, three times as many as Detroit, in 400 maquiladoras, or duty-free factories, economic development officials said. About 78 percent of residents are Hispanic, and 25 percent are foreign-born. Families send breadwinners across the bridge daily to work, and children to study.

But that deep web of connections between the two cities has been tested in recent weeks -- not only by the anxieties of the unresolved political debate over how to rewrite immigration laws, but also by the complicated daily reality of Washington's new effort to crack down on those violating existing laws. Many local officials interviewed recently expressed little enthusiasm for the increased security measures, and civil liberties groups and Mexican authorities have said that the harsher enforcement approach might have contributed to recent fatal Border Patrol shootings here.

On Aug. 8, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed a suspected smuggler who allegedly threatened him with a rock and bolt cutters at a border fence just east of downtown. The death of Jose Alejandro Ortiz Castillo, 23, was the fifth fatal Border Patrol shooting this year and the third in El Paso since June. Before this year, the last such local shooting happened in 2004.

The same day, U.S. authorities reported the deaths of two immigrants in custody, including that of a pregnant woman who died of a blood clot Aug. 7 at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in El Paso. Rosa Isela Contreras-Dominguez, 36, a legal U.S. resident and convicted marijuana smuggler, was the sixth ICE detainee to die this year, out of a detention population that has tripled over five years to more than 283,000.

Mexico's foreign affairs secretary condemned what he called an "excessive use of force" in the shooting of Ortiz, and the state prosecutor in Chihuahua began a homicide investigation.

"When there is an isolated event, you might understand it," said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. "But when you have two or three . . . then that becomes symptomatic that something is not right."

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