Oscar Tejeda heads his unmarked car off the highway across an open field, sharply up an embankment along the levy, and down through the grass toward the thick mesquite bushes and cottonwood trees lining the river. It is mid-afternoon on a brilliant sunny Saturday. "This area we're in right now is one of the most notorious . . ." he starts to say, and then interrupts himself -- "here you are, you've got one coming across right now."

Climbing up the bank is a young man with black hair and a black mustache. His pants are rolled up in a bundle, and his shoes dangle around his neck from laces he has tied together. He stares silently at us, notices Tejeda's uniform, and makes his way back down the bank and across the river. On the other side at river's edge stand three more young men. They wait until their companion reaches them and calmly pulls on his pants, and all stroll away.

Tejeda watches a moment and drives off. "This is the barker Road area, one of the most notorious crossings," he says."You can see the trial in front of us is made by both pedestrians vehicles effecting their illegal entries."

He drives slowly along the embankment flanking the river and the city of El Paso. Along the way clusters of people are gathered. Some already are in the water, moving toward the city, others gaze toward the shore. As we move along, Tejeda keeps up a running commentary:

"Here's where they run to the freight yards," he says. A bit farther: "Here's where they cross to get the city bus to downtown." Still later: "Here's one of the largest smuggling areas. People who made arrangements pull alongside the road, honk their horns, and they come running down the levy into the vehicles and drive off. See that camper parked there; that's probably one of them now."

We pass a long high metal fence. A section has been torn out at the bottom, and we can see people ready to enter the hole as soon as we leave.

Back down the route now, close to where we began. In midstream are four or five people, this time both men and women. When the car halts, they stop and wade back. "They're just waiting for their opportunity," Tejeda says. No sooner is that group on the far shore than the skyline is broken by the silhouettes of six youths coming over the hill directly toward us.

"It's like a tide moving at you," Tejeda remarks. "Sometimes it gets slower, but it never stops. Never."

There's nothing new about this. The illegal activity we're witnessing will receive no notice in the papers next day. It's merely something that occurs on any day, through daylight and darkness, all year round, here along the Mexican-American border where the wave of illegal immigrants keeps rising.

In our romantic dreams, fired by a thousand cowboy melodramas, the Rio Grande is a mighty torrent coursing deep and brown through the desert. Apparently once it actually approached that raging river of legend, but time, dams and canals have tamed and changed it. Today it's a tepid, muddy stream a few yards wide and a couple of feet deep. It remains the setting for an epic drama, though.

The story involves the acient search for a better life. It effects vast and unknown numbers of people and encompasses much more -- suffering and heartbreak, conflict between traditional American values of compassion and generosity and a harsh new spirit dictated by present realities, and political, economic and international decision that are all part of the undercurrents in this presidential election.

Two factors give it a special urgency during this campaign -- the influx of refugees, especially Cuban, that have stirred anger and strained facilities in many American communities, including this one, and the courting of the Hispanic vote, now grown to powerful proportions, by the presidential candidates. Each strongly affects the others, each makes the resolution of one more difficult for the other. It is a case of immigrant politics, pure and simple, and prime example of how our presidential campaigns tend more to obscure than clarify important national questions. But long after the election is over this issue will continue to bedevil the country. In a time of less -- less public funds, less jobs, less basic materials -- how do we accommodate the desires for more from more and more people, millions of whom are here illegally?

As Oscar Tejeda, himself the scion of Mexican immigrants, says: "History has shown us in our United States that when things are going good immigration is a welcome thing.But when things are bad immigration's not so desirous. That's been our way all throughout our time in history." The Patrol

Two years ago, U.S. Border Patrol agents working this land and water area of the Ela Paso sector apprehended 174,000 illegal aliens. No one knows how many they failed to catch, but estimates are they apprehend anywhere from only one out of 10 to four out of 10 aliens crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. Again, no one knows the exact number of illegal immigrants in this nation today -- educated guesses range from 4 million to 12 million.

The outpouring of people across this border is increasing, even though present official figures do not reflect it. The reasons for the disparity have more to do with political and bureaucratic considerations than an accurate account of what is happening. Most of the immigrants crossing the border are from Mexico, but now increasing numbers are coming from all over; they are a testiment to troubles, economic, political or personal in their respective lands. And while leaving their countries serves as something of a safety valve for internal tensions, they create their own tensions in the United States.

After spending time with the border patrol watching this scene unfold for day and night, from land and air, in city and desert, you come away with a depressing sense that you're seeing an American Vietnam. Not in any way that the struggle is bloody, or that guerrilla caravans are infiltrating everywhere and burrowing under the command posts or that the battle is designed to destroy the governing structure. It's the way we are choosing to combat the problem that stirs unhappy memories.

All our vaunted technology -- our infa-red night vision scopes, our magnetic and seismic sensors implanted in the ground to detect "undocumented aliens" approaching, our highway checkpoints and spot examinations of bus and air terminals and rail yards, our helicopters overhead and foot and vehicle partrols below -- and all our clearly superbly trained personnel in the end amount to exercises in futility. Even more troubling is a close look at this arm of the federal government in action.

While local and state police units move about with the most modern equipment, thanks in no small measure to federal grants from Washington, the Border Patrol limps along in outmoded and outdated vehicles. At present between 80 and 90 percent of the El Paso station's vehicles have clocked more than 100,000 miles. There's not enoughmoney to keep them in proper repair. Last spring a shortage of funds to buy gasoline actually grounded Border Patrol vehicles here. These operational problems are reminiscent of those afflicting the American military.

The Border Patrol also is a victim of political decisions over which it has no control. In the past its agents apprehended many aliens by making so-called "sweeps" of the business establishments here.Now Washington has imposed a moratorium on these kinds of operations; census bureau employes, it was said, might more readily obtain an accurate alien head count if the sweeps were halted, but now the reason for stopping them appears purely political. The sweeps are highly unpopular in the Mexican-American sections. Angering Hispanic voters is something the administration wants to avoid in an election year, so the moratorium continues. To make matters even more difficult, border patrol agents here have been detached to work with Cuban refugees in Miami, and some have been assigned duty at a detention center near the El Paso airport where some of the more difficult Cubans are being guarded.

In the meantime, Border Patrol agents continue their frustrating mission, understaffed, underfinanced, and without, it seems, clear direction from Washington. Their daily tasks often provide one frustration after another -- it is not uncommon for them to apprehend the same aliens several times, sometimes even in a 24-hour period. It is a tribute to their spirit and training that they continue to perform ably and professionally.But their problems are far from easy. The Emissary

Gaston da Bayona lives in El Paso, but represents the sister city of Juarez just acros the river. Together these neighboring cities form a metropolis of more than 1.5 million people. He views the changes today with a mixture of concern, diplomatically expressed national pride because of Mexico's sudden international potential prominence through rich oil discoveries and guarded expressions about the way the U.S. handles illegal immigrants and its relations with Mexico.

"This legendary river, that at one time looked like a river, but now is a narrow tube cut back by canals, it's not much of a barrier, is it?" he says. "You ask about immigration. This is touchy, this is touchy. The illegal people coming here are people coming with a search for a better life. They're good people, not criminal people, and all the harrassment! Of course, I know many many public officials here in El Pasco -- I will not name names, I will be discreet -- but I know many, many who have Mexican maids who are here illegally. They need maids. They need someone to pick up the peppers in the field. Your skilled labor won't do it. If they don't do it, it will rot. They're good workers. They work hard, 12 hours or more a day. Of course in a presidential year such as this, people are in a guarded position. What do they expect from us? What do they want? Some of your polticans are pushing now for the Mexican-American vote. I'm not going to name names. This week we have one of them here in El Paso (Reagan) and last week we had another one in the state (Carter). How convenient, all of a sudden, now that this is a presidential year they find us." The Mexican-American Leader

Lucy G. Acosta directs the largest and oldest Mexican-American civil rights organization, the league of United Latin American Citizens, here. She's the first woman to head the group in El Paso, and proud of it. Her life is one of those storybook testaments to American success. She came here during the Depression from Arizona, but has long roots in El Paso's Mexican-American community. Her oldest son is a lawyer in Phoenix, the only Mexican-American in a firm of 60 attorneys. Her youngest son graduated from Harvard and now attends the University of Texas law school at Austin.

"When in my wildest dreams was I ever going to think I was going to have two attorneys for sons?" he says. "Who knows, one day we may have a presidential candidate. I feel very strongly about this. In my dreams -- or illusions, whatever you care to call it -- I just feel this will come about. Just like I'm sure all the Polish people were elated when one of their Polish was elected the pope."

Like so many Mexican-Americans here, she displays a strong ambivalence about illegal aliens. As she says, this land once belonged to Mexico. "I can say California was our territory, Texas was our territory and it was taken away, so in essence we're punishing people for trying to come into a land that was actually theirs."


"There's no way we can control this immigration problem as we know it. Neither can we say let's open the borders for all people to come in. We cannot have that open border like we used to. At the same time, we're taking advantage of these people. We are the ones who bring them over here to work, who pay them a dollar to do work no one else will do. And here we are now opening our doors to all the Cubans, to the Vietnamese people, the people from Haiti, but we're trying to keep those people away. How can you make friends like that?

"As for the politics, we have become aware of the benefits due us. Not that we're trying to collect all of a sudden, but before we never knew how to go aboutit. Now we do.

"So today I'm looking at three guys, and I'm thinking to myself, frankly I'm not that impressed. If I had my druthers I'd stay at home and forget about it. But I'm not that type. Good or bad, I'm going to vote, and not all of us are Democrats anymore. We have all kinds now. In my own house we were very split between Carter and Kennedy.But okay. So Carter hasn't done anything too fanstastic. Inflation is coming up, interests are coming up, everything else I can think of is coming up. I was never too crazy about Carter in the beginning, because I didn't know anything about him. I think we were all in the same boat. What we did was get rid of Ford because he was connected with Nixon. We very, very much wanted a change.

"But I'll tell you one thing. I'm not crazy about Reagan either. I feel that Reagan is always acting. Maybe it's very unjust to say that because he has been an actor, but I just can't get away from that Fact. To me he's always acting. And I just feel he is a little too old.

"When I look at Carter I think of how much he has aged. I wonder if the job is too much for him. Will he be able to handle it for another four years? Will he really try to achieve some of the goals he set out for himself -- and will the Congress work with him? I know for sure if this Congress was a problem for him, if Reagan gets elected and we have another Democratic Congress we're going to be in the same position we're in. We're not going to progress.

"So Carter has got to do something better. He cannot continue in the trend he was. At least he should have more knowledge. You're got to think, what the heck did he know when he went in there? Nothing."

In the end, she operates from self-interest. Jimmy Carter's made many Hispanic appointments, the most of any president; that weighs in her mind. "That is something we want to look at," she says. "The Democrats and Republicans view the Hispanic vote in terms of their purposes. Only when elections come along do they start thinking of us. But that's changing now. It's changing."

One reason, of course, is that the larger the Hispanic population, the greater the political power. Back to the aliens again. The Principal

Bowie High School sits a few hundred yards across from the Rio Grande, seprated from the river by a freeway. The homes that surround it are humble, and almost all of them house Mexican-Americans. It is a large school, with some 1,600 students, including pupils that are in the United States illegally. A recent Supreme Court ruling holds that states must provide free education to children of illegal aliens; Bowie is doing so. At the same time, having told the state the children are their responsibility, the president has said the areas affected are not eligible for federal "impact" funds. That would be illegal, Carter remarked here in Texas during a campaign swing last week, because that money is reserved for areas with heavy military concentrations and lower local tax revenues. Catch-22.

"Bilingual education is a can of worms," says Luis Cortez, Bowie's principal and a Mexican-American. "I'd say the theory is good. The problem's how it's implemented. My own wife is involved in it and she believes in certain aspects of it. But just how far do we carry it? My concern right now is the 16-, 17, 18 and 19-year-olds we get in here. Some of them have never been to school at all. None of them speaks English.

"This year I've got over 100 of these students. You might say that's not a large percentage compared with the 1,500 students, but in terms of the time and effort that has to go into working with those individual students it is a problem.

Cortez knows illegal immigration firsthand. His school is a major crossing ground. At times Border Patrol agents literally chase aliens through the school corridors, and he himself has opened his office door to bump into three or more of them. "They're just as scared as I am," he says. "My wife teaches not far from here and the same thing happens there. They walk in the school, go in the restroom to change clothes and blend into the community.

"It kind of makes you wonder. We open our door to the other countries and allow free entry and yet these people who are our neighbors and in most cases are really and truly trying to find jobs, we spend all this time and money running up and down trying to catch them. It doesn't seem like there's any justice in it.

"And yet as a nation I think we should be restrictive. I feel we have to take care of our own first; starting with our own families, and then the circle gets bigger to include the entire United States. The Merchant

Mike Dipp, Jr., helps run the family business, and it's substantial -- a hotel and other real estate investments, two shopping centers, separate wholesale grocery and meat operations. He's been in El Paso all his life and has headed or is a member of just about every important business group here. From a business standpoint, the reality of El Paso is that it can't survive without the Mexican-Americans. Many, many are employed throughout the city -- illegally but openly. Dipp would like to see this area named a free trade zone.

"I don't feel per se there's an illegal alien. I feel when a person is crossing in order to feed his family, he's just in pursuit of work. Ninety percent of those who cross quote illegally unquote are actually good people. They're crossing because $1 on this side is worth 23 or 25 on the other side and that's even with the exchange rate the way it is. It takes very few dollars to make people earn more money over there, and like they say, this is compensatory for the risks they take. Plus the fact they're very hard workers, very dilligent people."

Naturally his political views are tied closely to his economic ones. His concern is international relations, especially those with mexico, and for the U.S. to increase its overseas trade, "I feel we have slipped to a low ebb in terms of international relations," he says. "I'm concerned. We're all concerned. Probably my concerns are a lot stronger because I eat it and breathe it and live it every day right here on the border."

Presidential choices: Again he's a realist. "El Paso's traditionally voted Democratic," he says. "It will still be that way this year." But he believes Carter has bungled badly, and speaks glowingly of Reagan. The Pilot

In the old days, when the Border Patrol was formed, the deputy shefiffs, cowboys and soldiers who first joined its ranks were issued badges, revolvers and Winchester rifles and told to furnish their own horses when they went on "line duty." L. W. (Scratch) Nichols rides the air today for the patrol. His line duty takes him up and down the Rio Grande, back through the mountain passes, along the railroad tracks and into immense reaches of the southwestern desert of Texas and New Mexico.

"You'll see places where it looks like the Ho Chi Minh trail," he says as his small helicopter lifts off a ramp and moves toward the river. It's early Sunday morning and he's beginning his three-hour air patrol of the border.

His chopper is no place for anyone with acrophobia; both doors are removed, the better to spot illegal aliens, but leaving the passenger feeling suspended in midair, those slender shoulder and lap straps offering little security. But it's old stuff to Nicholas. He flew the same kind of chopper in Vietnam and has been flying for the patrol the last seven years. He sees an increase in illegal border crossings, especially from the highly organized smuggling rings. For sums ranging up into the thousands of dollars, the rings will spirit aliens into the United States and send them on into the interior with faked documentation, plane tickets and jobs arranged in advance. Many head for Chicago, with Los Angeles the second-most-popular metropolis.

In all his time of flying, Scratch says he sees at least 250 illegal aliens each day from the air. Today, it's relatively quiet -- a few groups along, or in, the river below, but nothing exceptional. "Looks kinda slow down there," Scratch drawls over the intercom. "Let's run out into the desert." He turns, and heads north and east. "What they do is avoid our highway checks by crossing on foot or vehicle into the desert.They start around 2 in the morning and go all night, carrying their food and water with them. It's a helluva of a hard trip."

We're skimming the desert floor now, heading toward the low-lying hills and mountain ranges in the distance. Along the way, Scratch talks to himself. He came to this corner of the Southwest as a child from Missouri, went to college at the El Paso branch of the University of Texas, studied political science and English literature in graduate school; then came Vietnam. When he came home, he continued as a helicopter pilot.

As with almost everyone you meet, either here or earlier in the Deep South, Scratch is troubled by the state of the nation and its presidential choices. He voted enthusiastically for Carter last time and became deeply disappointed. He can't understand how someone so intelligent could have made so many mistakes. Some of Reagan's ideas interest him, but again typically Reagan's early campaign performances have raised doubts. He's curious about John Anderson and wants to know more about him. "I used to be a liberal," he says, "but now I wonder if I'm becoming more conservative. I know this: Something's wrong. We don't seem to have things together. We're slipping and you can feel it."

Now we're over the badlands -- a forbidding and beautiful area of sharp ravines, gullies, winding dried-up river beds and extraordinary rock formations. Over the chopper intercom comes word from a fixed wing spotter Border Patrol plane. That plane and a patrolman in a vehicle below are tracking four aliens in the desert; they could use Scratch's help. He banks sharply and flies toward them. On the ground the agent has begun tracking the aliens on foot by "sign-cutting," the old Indian techinque of literally following footprints in the sand. How appropriate for this futile process. For the next 45 minutes we swing back and forth over the desert, searching for tracks and keeping in constant contact with the other plane and the agent below. Twice we land on the desert to pick up Nick, the agent, and carry him forward to another position.

"They're awful hard to spot," Scratch says laconically. "They'll burrow into those crevasses and even pull up the bushes over them."

Around and around, back and forth, up and down. In the end, we never see a single person. Once we spot a single set of footprints.

On the way back to El Paso, Scratch is saying, yes, it's frustrating.Yes, it makes you wonder. "But I lookd at it this way," he says. "If we weren't on patrol, there would be at least 20 times more coming in."