The lock-up at the District of Columbia office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is an illegal alien's first stop after he is arrested and his last before he is deported.
Scrawled everywhere among the multilingual obscenities on its yellowing walls are the names of Central America's poorest Country, El Salvador, and some of its rural villages. One appears repeatedly, written in several different hands:
"Fidel Adias was here-Intipuca."
"The great fox of Intipuca."
"The weasel of Intipuca."
They are notices from a town that has sent, according to its residents, 1,000 of its 5,000 people to work in Washington during the last several years. It is a town that has grown rich by Salvadoran standards on money sent from Washington.
U.S. immigration law makes it virtually impossible for most of Intipuca's people to enter, live or work legally in the United States.
They come anyway. It's a matter of survival, they say. As a result, since the migration began more than a decade ago, eluding the immigration service has become a sometimes brutal and terrifying, other times adventurous, occasionally comic tradition among the people of Intipuca.
"We were loaded into camper on the back of a pickup truck. We couldn't see anything. It was completely closed and lockout . . . All the women were crying."
Jesus Garcia sat in a grim little apartment on the rough edge of Adams-Morgan, a few blocks west of the 14th Street riot corridor, recalling the last stage of the clandestine journey that brought him to Washington from El Salvador nine months ago. A quiet man in his md-40s, he gave his account without passion, as if telling the simple facts of life.
Inside the camper, 21 men and women were huddled, all illegal aliens,
he said. For three days and nights they traveled nonstop across the breadth of the United States, from Los Angeles to the Nation's capital. They were give one sandwich a day to eat. They were never allowed out. Their only sanitary facility was a can they passed around.
Each paid smugglers more than $1,000 to guide them, conceal them and transport them along the 5,000-mile route from El Salvador, Garcia said. First class air fare, if they could have used it legally, would have cost less than $360.
Garcia shook his head and smiled. "While we rode in the camper we talked about going into the smuggling business."
They emerged from the back of the truck, finally, during the silent hours of early morning at a deserted service station somewhere in the Washington suburbs. From there they were driven in cars to the apartment where Garcia still lives.
With the money he earns washing dishes in downtown restaurant, he is able to support his wife and ten children in the countryside near Intipuca better than at any previous time in their lives. "I'm willing to suffer here to be able to do that," he said.
The risks and discomforts of the journey were well known to Garcia long before he ever decided actually to make it. Stories about the trip circulate constantly through the village, providing information and inspiration to those who are willing to gamble on it reason for caution to those who are not. Few undertake it lightly.
"Sure, we could all go," a villager, Ignacio Gonzales, told a reporter who recently visited Intipuca, "but there are too many risks." Some of the smugglers violate the women or steal. Gonzales said. "You sell everything you have, and have to borrow more. You get caught, get sent back, and you're worse off than you start out."
But there is no problem making arrangements to go.
"First you find a coyote" - a smuggler, Gonzales explained. "That's not hard, everybody knows who they are. There are good coyotes and bad coyotes. Some give you three trips for the same price, and if you don't make it the first time across, you get to try again or send somebody in your place. The professionals, they'll even loan you the money sometimes.
"The local authorities are glad to see you go," continued Gonzales, sitting in the shade not far from the National Guard statiion one inevitably finds in Salvadoran towns. "It means more money in the country."
Obtaining the papers required to leave El Salvador costs the price of a $1 birth certificate. Those deported from the United States who want to try the trip again are supposed to be prohibited from leaving but, Gonzales said, a $15 bribe persuades local officials to "tear your page" from the list.
In the late '60s and early '70s, when the migration from Intipuca was beginning, it was still relatively easy for a Salvadoran to obtain a tourist visa to the United States. Once here, he would simply start working illegally and ignore the expiration date on his documents.
But restrictions have tightened in recent years. A Salvadoran seeking permission to come to the United States on any sort of temporary visa must prove to the satisfaction of the U.S. consul in San Salvador, the nation's capital, that he does not intend to stay and work in the United States, that he owns property and has a steady job or other ties that would compel him to return to El Salvador, and that he has enought money to support himself without a job in the U.S.
Immigrant visas that allow aliens to work legally in the United States are even harder to come by, according to and INS spokesman. Without a relative who is already a citizen or legal permanent resident in the United States, or a skill that is certifiably in short supply here, foreigners cannot get such documents.
Few people from the rural villages of El Salvador could muster any of these proofs, though, as one immigration official put it, "What they do sometiems (to get a tourist visa) is rent 'show money and show clothing' for their appearance before the consular officials, then return it to whoever they borrowed it from once they get back outside the embassy."
A few purchase fake documents for about $1,500, according to residents of Intipuca, but there are always fears that what looks authentic in El Salvador will not appear so valid when an immigration inspector peruses it at a U.S. airport. There is also the feeling, as one man from Intipuca said, that "you don't know" how to get around when first go to the United States. "You need a guide."
For most of the people of Intipuca, the only way to come to Washington is surreptitiously, with the smugglers. One coyote normally accompanies a group of villagers up through Guatemala and Mexico by bus, travelling without rest for the better part of a week.
Those who have made trip talk of constant "mordidas" - literally, bites - meaning bribes paid to Mexican officials along the way.
One villager told of a Mexican policeman near the border who demanded $50 from each person in the smugglers' party.
"He said, 'i'm not making any money off of you. The U.S. government pays me $50 for every one of you I turn in'" - a lie, according to immigration officials - "'and if you go to jail the soldiers there are going to steal everything you have.'"
But it is during the first few hours and days after crossing the border that the risks are highest. Though there are only about 300 Border Patrol officers on duty along the 1,950-mile border at any given time, according to an INS spokesman, with the aid of sophisticated electronic sensors they made more than 860,000 arrests there last year.
Capture, in any case, is the least of the dangers the illegal aliens face as they make their midnight crossings.
The first coyote turns them over to local guides who lead them across the rough desert and arid hills between Tijuana, Mexico and Chula Vista, Calif.
If they are separted from the group in the dark they may easily get lost, and in some cases they die wandering through the barren countryside. An INS spokesman recently estimated that hundreds, perhaps as many as 1,000 illegal aliens, lose their lives each year in the deserts of the Southwest or, farther east, crossing the Rio Grande into Texas.
In other cases, after losing their escorts, the immigrants have to make their own hapless way into Los Angeles.
A man who lives near Intipuca told of stumbling as he and his group were racing to a van the coyotes had waiting for them on the U.S. side of the border.
"By the time I got to my senses," he said, "they were starting the truck. I yelled 'Don't leave me!' but they left."
He walked into Chula Vista at dawn and caught a cab to Los Angeles. The driver, he was pleased to discover, spoke Spanish.
'I started talking to the guy," he said, a smile animating his middle-age features. "I was so excited. I told him all about my family, why I was going, how people couldn't live there [in El Salvador].
"When we got to Los Angeles he said 'Do you know where we are?" I said no . . . He said, 'Sorry, but this is the end of your trip.'" They were in front of the INS district office.
"I started laughing and he asked why. I said that since the minute I left my front door I though I was going to stay for a year, that I was going to help my family. But if this was as far as I got I was satisfied. I just wanted to make sure that if I got caught it was in the United States. They treat you bad in Mexico, but in the United States you get to ride [home] in a plane."
He will not make the trip agan, he said, unless he can do it legally, but he has since sent his daughter to the U.S. on the same "ticket" he used.
He grinned, obviously pleased with himself. "It was an adventure for my old age."
For most, however, the journey is nothing but an ordeal.
It took Jesus Garcia two attempts and more than three years of saving and planning before he finally reached that suburban Washington service station last June.
"I came with bad luck," he told a reporter in Washington. On the first try in 1976, his group was set upon by the robbers who haunt the treacherous hills near Chula Vista preying on the illegal aliens who often carry their life savings with them on their journey.
"They wanted to kill me, to slit my throat," said Garcia. He and the others with him were fighting a losing barehanded battle against the thieves when a spotlight and the whir of helicopter bldes frightened off their attackers.
Garcia was saved only to be deported. The helicopter belonged to the U.S. Border Patrol.
It was two years before he could make another attempt. This time, after slipping across the border he and 20 other Salvadorans were left waiting in an open field without food or water for three days, Garcia said.
Finally the smugglers returned and transported them to Los Angeles, a drive of several hours, in groups of five people crammed into the trunks of sedans to elude highway checkpoints.
Garcia said he nearly passed out from the heat and the fumes. Others, he has heard, have died. (The INS reported recently that two illegal aliens were killed when they were trapped in the trunk of a car that caught on fire.)
After three days in the "safe houses" of the barrio of East Los Angeles, Garcia and the rest of his group were taken to Washington in the sealed pickup truck.
"We know, we know," said Washington's INS district director Joseph A. Mongiello with more than a little frustration in his voice. "Washington seems to be the biggest magnet for that area right now."
Last year, 426 illegal aliens from El Salvador were caught in the District of Columbia and Virginia, 26 percent of all the INS apprehensions in the area.
When Blackie's House of Beef was raided last November - sending dishwashers and busboys sprinting down M Street NW or diving into closets to hide-11 of the 14 people arrested were from El Salvador and several were from the area around Intipuca.
But such arrests, INS investigators say, hardly make a dent in Washington's population of illegal immigrants. They decline even to guess at the total number. Many local investigators say privately that they have come to believe the situation is simply beyond their control.
Most of the service's resources have been focused in recent years on attempts to improve the processing of legal immigrants, stop the illegal flow by increasing enforcement along the border, and clamp down on the "coyotes."
While some progress has been made against smugglers in the West, according to INS reports, Mongiello said that in Washington there hasn't been a major break since 1976 when 17 illegal aliens from Guatemala and El Salvador were arrested as they climbed out of a pickup truck near the State Department in Foggy Bottom.
With only 26 investigators, Mongiello said, "We just don't have the resources to go after the smuggling operations."
Aliens who are caught are always asked in detail just how they got to Washington, but, said, Mongiello, "The story is so stereotyped that either they have such a successful operation we can't break it," or, he suggested, they are given misleading information by the smugglers.
"They can never seem to remember the name of the smuggler or the exact location of the place where they crossed the border," Mongiello smiled ruefully.
Most immigration officials agree that finding suspected illegal aliens is not the biggest problem in apprehending them, but a number of factors keep them from acting.
"Part of the reason is that we have to observe civil rights," said a senior immigration official. Court rulings have limited the power of the INS to question anyone who "looks foreign" on the street and the warrants used to search businesses are currently being challenged.
"And then," continued the official, "what would we do with them if we rounded up say 500 in a weekend? We can't pack them into the city jail and they can't stay in the lock-up overnight. We can't exactly let them loose - most of them we'd never see again. And we can't just shove them on a plane and send them back."
Immigration statistics suggest, moreover, that the longer an illegal alien stays in Washington, the less the chances he will be caught. "Sometimes they get that false sense of security," Mongiello said. ". . . and sometimes that lasts for five or ten years."
Another immigration official was even blunter. "The people we catch in the cities," he said, "have got to be the unluckiest people in the world."
Fears of "la migra" - the immigration service - do not die easily. Even people who were interviewed in El Salvador asked that their identities be protected before they would talk to a reporter. Consequently, some of their names, as well as those of the illegal aliens now living in Washington, have been changed.