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).
Enter the law of unintended consequences. Instead of trying their luck along the Rio Grande and other traditional crossing spots, thousands of illegal aliens set their sights on the open desert of Arizona. In 1993, the Border Patrol made fewer than 1 in 10 of their arrests in Arizona. By 2000, the figure was nearly 37 percent. Coyotes, the cutthroat guides that lead illegal immigrants on their journey north, began charging in excess of $1,500 per head for brutal treks through the sun-baked desert. And the immigrants paid a price: Almost 150 died in the Arizona desert in the broiling summer of 2003. In the fiscal year that just ended, at least 460 people died along the southwest border. Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego, says the actual numbers of deaths could be two to three times as high.
Until now, the Department of Homeland Security's strategy has been to shift with the tide. Last year, the department, a hydra-headed behemoth fashioned from 22 different government agencies after 9/11, launched the Arizona Border Control Initiative, an effort that focused on a 261-mile stretch of border speckled with cholla cacti and dun-colored jack rabbits. In the past two years, the Border Patrol there has hired close to 1,000 agents.
Disappointments. The results, however, were not as significant as Washington might have hoped. Border Patrol officials made almost 439,000 arrests in the Tucson sector this past fiscal year, down 11 percent from the 491,771 they snagged the year before. T. J. Bonner, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, an agents' union, calls the DHS strategy the 400-year plan because that's how long he calculates it will take to bring security to the entire border at the agency's current pace. "Four hundred years ago," Bonner said recently, "we were setting up the first colony in Jamestown."
And the cat and mouse game only grows more complicated. The Border Patrol's Yuma sector, which includes the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, saw a staggering 54 percent jump in arrests in fiscal year 2005. The Border Patrol set up Camp Grip in the refuge two years ago--a shiny, silver trailer in the middle of a blasted white desert with eerie black-capped mountains. Summer temperatures here typically reach 120 degrees, earning the lone road through the desert the name Camino del Diablo, Devil's Highway. Rescue beacons--or "panic poles," as some agents call them--dot the desert, their placards in English and Spanish telling migrants, "You are in danger of dying if you do not summon for help." Most days, Border Patrol pilot Joe Dunn flies low over the desert floor in a Vietnam-era OH-6 Cayuse helicopter. "If we see signs [footprints] in the desert on Monday and we don't find the group," Dunn says, "we start checking for their dead bodies on Wednesday."
Targets. For the agents assigned to protect urban border areas--like Nogales, Ariz.--the work has also gotten more dangerous. "We are not going to back down or cater to thugs," says Chertoff. But it's scary out there. "We get showered with rocks out here almost every night," says Border Patrol agent Jose Garza, as his car inches along a dirt road tracing the rusted fence that separates Nogales from Mexico. Many agents in Nogales now drive "war wagons," Chevy Tahoes equipped with metal caging around the windows. Officers on the southwest border reported being assaulted at least 687 times in fiscal year 2005, a spike from just 384 the year before.
The fear of terrorism, however, eclipses most people's concerns about traditional violence. In the fiscal year that just ended, the Border Patrol had 155,000 arrests of illegal immigrants from countries "other than Mexico"; 649 were from "special interest countries," including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. In fiscal year 2002, only 37,316 OTM immigrants, as they are called, were caught in the Border Patrol's net. "It's a whole different type of immigrant coming over the border," asserts Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Some 83 percent of OTM arrests were in Texas last fiscal year, and Cornyn says he has met residents of the Rio Grande Valley there who are "terrified to go outside their homes."
Added to this combustible mix are the Minutemen, the angry denizens of the border who have decided to take matters into their own hands by forming armed teams to watch over the green line, as the border is called. Chris Simcox, the Minutemen's founder, says his organization added 20 new chapters in October alone and has had requests to form 40 more, including "interior enforcement" groups that will photograph employers picking up workers at day laborer depots. The governors of Arizona and New Mexico upped the ante this summer when they declared a "state of emergency" in the border counties in their states. "I didn't do it lightly," says Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. "The federal government can't even get the basic things done here."
The boss. Chertoff, an aggressive former U.S. attorney who was taking on mob bosses by age 33, wants to change that. His Secure Border Initiative, as the blueprint is called, was the product of a 120-day blitzkrieg of meetings this summer at DHS headquarters that involved mapping every moment of a detainee's contact with immigration officials from capture to the trip back home. "We envision being able to detect an incursion [of the border] within minutes," Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar says of the end goal. The timetable for realizing the vision? Three to five years. The price tag? DHS officials say they don't know.
As part of the plan, Chertoff hopes within a year to end the policy of "catch and release" that has allowed those OTM immigrants to be let go because of a lack of bed space in U.S. detention facilities. Theoretically, the migrants promise to show up for subsequent court dates, but historically, only 63 percent do. Congress handed Chertoff money for 2,250 new beds this year, but he plans to essentially double or triple the number of beds at his disposal by speeding up the detention and deportation process. He'd do that by expanding the government's authority to remove immigrants without a formal immigration trial. Mandatory consular visits--in which detainees speak with an official from their country--will be done via videoconference. "Catch and release," says Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, "is one of the most significant vulnerabilities in the system."
Chertoff also plans to invest more substantially in "military proven" technology for the border beginning next October, possibly including satellite imagery. A House bill drafted in consultation with Chertoff would expand DHS's cooperation with the armed forces and give the Border Patrol military backup. Chertoff's plan would also have the Army Corps of Engineers install 84 miles of railroad ties or hatched metal barriers to keep cars from easily crossing Arizona's desert border areas.
Other changes will be more subtle. Over the course of the next year, DHS will phase in 27 new fugitive-operations teams, small groups that will root out illegal aliens living in cities and towns around the country. Today, there are just 17 teams. In addition, DHS hopes to train state prison officials to identify illegal-immigrant felons who could serve part of their prison terms back home; Arizona, one of the only states with such a plan in place, says it will save taxpayers there nearly $5 million this year.
Critics will be examining the changes carefully. Democrats have long worried that any local police involvement in enforcing immigration laws erodes trust between minority communities and police. And Chertoff's technique for ending catch and release, with its abridged legal procedures, is "chilling," says Marshall Fitz of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "No outside group has ever been permitted to study how it's worked in places where it's been tested so far."
Many wonder whether enforcement efforts alone--no matter how massive--can ever solve the problem. "Until Congress changes the broken immigration laws in this country," says Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, "all Homeland Security can do is close loopholes." Chertoff himself says it will be "much, much harder" to get control of the border without a guest worker bill. Others think DHS would see fewer border crossings if Congress simply made mandatory a now voluntary pilot program that lets employers check a worker's immigration status. But these are contentious issues that are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
Job sites. In the meantime, some critics would like to see Chertoff take a harder stance against illegal immigrants who are here now and the businesses that hire them. The Fugitive Operations Teams, critics contend, target mostly illegal aliens with criminal records and those who have failed to make required court dates, a group that accounts for just over 450,000 of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Chertoff has told his department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch to focus its scant worksite-enforcement resources on places of national security interest--like airports and nuclear power plants--rather than farms and restaurants, where illegals are more likely to be working. "This administration is only concerned with illegal immigration when it concerns terrorists," says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Other critics say that although Chertoff has called his worksite plan "new," it's really just more of the same: ICE already keeps an eye on airports and nuclear plants.
For now, many are happy just to have a new plan, and they're hoping major organizational turmoil--a DHS hallmark--doesn't sidetrack the effort. DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner advocated in a recent report that ICE and Customs and Border Protection, the DHS division that includes the Border Patrol, be merged. And one House committee is considering a bill that would do just that. But it's hardly enough for those on the front lines of the border war. "Shifting around boxes," says Arizona Governor Napolitano, "sounds like a Washington solution."
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.