More illegal immigrants. More violence. More death. The public has had it. Now the Bush administration has a new plan. But will it matter?
YUMA, ARIZ. --When Border Patrol agents here meet for "the muster," their gathering before the night shift, they've got a lot to talk about. On a recent evening, shift commander Tony Martinez ticked off a laundry list of events from the night before. Scores of illegal immigrants had rushed the 8-foot metal fence that separates San Luis, Ariz., from Mexicali, Mexico--a tactic known as the "banzai run." A routine checkpoint stop turned up 251 bundles of marijuana in a rental car. And a report out of Miami indicated that some illegals were getting plastic surgery on their fingertips so their prints wouldn't be recognized by the FBI's database. "Remember Casa Grande," Martinez warned, referring to an incident when an agent found three axes and three loaded guns in an illegal immigrant's duffel bag. "And please, be careful."
For years, Americans have worried about the country's porous borders, but in the past year or so the concerns have grown significantly, polls show, and for good reason. Changes in law enforcement operations have forced smugglers of drugs and illegal aliens into ever more isolated areas, increasing the number of deaths and the level of violence to a point where even the most hardened enforcement officials are alarmed. The number of arrests made by Border Patrol agents is one of the few reliable measurements of the rising influx. That number dropped right after 9/11, but it has since been climbing. In fact, the cost of protecting the nation's borders has increased 58 percent since 9/11, but in three of the four years since the attacks, the number of people nabbed by the Border Patrol still increased. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the Border Patrol reported 1.19 million arrests, compared with 932,000 in fiscal year 2003. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has grown from 8.4 million in 2000 to 11 million today.
Concerns. As a result, the political ferment over immigration has never been greater. An October CBS News poll showed that 78 percent of Americans think the government is not doing enough to control the borders; talk shows bristle with demands for action. Terrorism is also a concern. Adm. James Loy, a former No. 2 at the Department of Homeland Security, has said that intelligence "strongly suggests" al Qaeda is eyeing the southern border as a path of least resistance to strike inside the United States.
The Bush's administration is wrestling with the question of how to respond. The president has proposed a temporary guest worker program. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has followed up with a sweeping--and controversial--proposal to overhaul the way the border is policed (story, Page 30). Chertoff's plan is ambitious. Whether it will work is very much an open question.
Big law enforcement initiatives, of course, are nothing new. In 1993, when most illegal immigrants sneaked across the southwestern border with short, frantic dashes in the dark of night, the Border Patrol began shifting its strategy from one of arrest to deterrence. El Paso's then Border Patrol chief, Silvestre Reyes, lined his agents up along the Rio Grande, each within line sight of the next. "We detained so many people," Reyes recalled, "we had to put them in tents." A year later, President Bill Clinton launched a similar effort in San Diego. For good measure, his plan added a fence topped with floodlights (box, Page 54).