Anyone who thinks America's illegal immigration problem is writ in black and white has probably never been to San Ysidro. As Washington tries to forget its most recent immigration reform battle, border agents are enlisted as intelligence gatherers, rescuers and enforcement officials.
The walls rise up from the desert like steel monoliths, 10 and 15 feet high, respectively. A desolate expanse runs between them, 150 feet wide and monitored by cameras, lights, roaming vehicles and other sensory technology. This is the San Ysidro border, wedged between San Diego and Tijuana, the busiest port of entry in the world.
A few miles to the east, the two fences dissolve into the face of broad, reaching mountains and an impenetrable desert landscape. "This is the most rugged terrain on the border," U.S. Border Patrol Agent Matthew Johnson says as he exits his vehicle.
Johnson points out a nondescript spot of ground on a rise just above the truck. "You can actually see the border right there," he says. To illustrate, he waves at one of the four-foot stone monuments that demarcate the border every 100 yards or so, but other than the gray obelisks there's nothing but bushes, and no wall creeping across the mountain to offer a sense of where the countries are separated. In fact, it could be any chaparral-covered mountain in Southern California.
"Do you eventually you get a sense of where the line is?" I ask him.
"After you've worked here for awhile," he says.
A line in the sand
Agent Johnson and I are on our way out to a spot near Tecate, about 20 miles east of the San Ysidro border crossing. It is a place where anxieties over national security and illegal immigration converge, and I've volunteered for this ride-along to see how the current policies are playing out on the ground. Namely, I've come to see how the U.S. Border Patrol regulates problem areas like this one—an ambiguous, gray area with little demarcation outside of a flimsy, sporadic fence.
Some deride how meager the fence looks compared to the imposing steel walls just south of San Diego, but the infrastructure costs for building a more serious barrier in this area are categorically prohibitive. "The media always focus on the fence," Johnson says when I bring it up. "Infrastructure is more important. This fence is only to stop vehicles from coming through."
Here, the burnt-umber steel plates are stitched together like a quilt about 10 feet high. In some places it runs directly into the side of a hill.
As evening nears, the calls start coming over the radio. The U.S. Border Patrol has a number of seismic sensors buried in the ground near popular trails and a central office calls out over the radio every time the sensors are tripped so agents can amass on the spot. Sometimes they find animals, but more often than not they find shoe prints. On this night, a Friday, the calls are frequent and steady. "Looks like it's going to be a busy night," Johnson says.
The new intelligence game: watchers watching each other
In order to stay effective, the Border Patrol moves these sensors frequently, but they have to bury them in the dark so that people on the other side don't know which patches of ground to avoid. "Especially since 2001, when we became part of the Department of Home-land Security," Johnson says. "We've moved much more into an intelligence role. All of our operations are intelligence-driven, so we're not just out here randomly. We're targeting specific operations, specific smugglers and national security threats."
On the other side, "smugglers use counterintelligence against us," Johnson says. "They hire people to just watch us all day. They're pretty sophisticated organizations—with all the money from drugs and people smuggling. They own houses; monitoring equipment. They have their own night-vision, binoculars—everything. And they're watching everything the border patrol is doing."
To hear Johnson tell it, it's all an intelligence game: watchers watching each other. In addition to the fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles the Border Patrol also has a number of scope trucks, with which to occupy high ground and see the action on the other side using the large night-vision scopes mounted on top. From one scope truck we learn that about 50 people have massed on the opposite side of our hill, and they're waiting for dark to make the cross. This group will be only a handful of the million or so attempting to cross this southern stretch every year. Estimates vary on the numbers who make it through, but some put the number at more than 700,000—about the population of Columbus, Ohio.
From enforcement to rescue
More conservative projections offer about half that. But whatever the estimates, "There's a lot of people coming across because on net we're absorbing around 400,000 illegal immigrants into the economy each year," says Gordon Hanson, an expert on the economics of illegal immigration at UCSD. "They've got to be getting in somehow." At one point, San Diego was a major center for illegal immigration, until Operation Gatekeeper in the mid-90s, at which point the two border fences near the San Ysidro crossing were erected. Before that, immigrants would line up on the Mexico side and wait for evening to come streaming across in a massive run. Operation Gatekeeper pushed the major sites of immigration east to less-inhabited areas of the border like Arizona and New Mexico, but there are still people who attempt the crossing at a steady clip just east of San Ysidro.
Now that the immigrants have moved eastward, however, there are a host of new dangers involved in the crossing, mostly related to weather and terrain. Rattlesnakes even factor into the equation. Once immigrants make it to the other side they have to be picked up by a waiting vehicle (usually trucks with a facade of wood or rocks in the back to mask the weight of people). The reason the spot east of Tecate is so popular is that it's only 150 yards from U.S. Route 94. After they've been picked up there, immigrants must still try to surpass the freeway checkpoints that crop up, and because of the nature of the landscape in this part of the border area, this is where it gets exceptionally dangerous.
"Often because of weather," notes Johnson, "our role turns from an enforcement role to a rescue role." It can actually take a few days with heavy provisions just to cross a few miles of these mountains, and this is a journey these people are often unprepared for. "Smugglers tell immigrants it will be a two-hour walk and it becomes a three-day hike under varying weather conditions. If people can't keep up they're left behind."
With the potential onslaught of agents, the cost of hiring a smuggler and the mortal danger of dying in the mountains, why do people bother?
It's the economy, stupid
Hanson offers one simple explanation, but with an interesting caveat: "Immigration is driven purely by economics," he says, but there's more to it than the general promise of opportunity in the United States. In a recent report submitted to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hanson offered that, "Examining month-to-month changes in apprehensions of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the United States/Mexico border reveals that when Mexican wages fall by 10 percent relative to U.S. wages, attempts at illegal entry increase by 6 percent." In other words, illegal immigration follows the two economies so closely that it can actually be used as an economic indicator.
There are positives on the employment side as well. "What's attractive to employers about illegal immigrants," Hanson says, "is that they get who they want, when they want, and where they want them. If we were an island, we could get away with a highly restrictive immigration policy. But we're not—we're next to a poor country with an abundant supply of labor that's highly motivated and wants to work." Indeed, illegal immigration is a massive contributor to the U.S. economy, according to Hanson.
Moreover, Hanson argues that there is a strong economic incentive for exactly the kind of policy that makes border policing light, and in his report, he made exactly that point. "Though the United States does not set the level of illegal immigration explicitly," he says "existing enforcement policies effectively permit substantial numbers of illegal aliens to enter the country." Beyond that, "There's an abundance of evidence we have of pressure on the border patrol to let illegal immigration happen."
It would be hard to suggest to the agents, though, that border enforcement is light. Back in the mountains east of Tecate, Agent Johnson turns to me and says, "Are you up for a little jog?"
People, policy and politics
After I nod, he sets off at a run through a dense, trail-less brush. There are no lights with which to navigate the manzanita, but what makes it really difficult are the water bottles littering the ground. Everywhere I look I see empty water bottles, and I keep tripping over them. Agent Johnson wanted to offer some assistance to an agent who had apprehended a large group of people, but as we run deeper into the bushes in the total darkness, it becomes more and more impossible to locate the other agent. Finally, we give up and wander back to the road through various plots of private property, over and around barbed wire with the warning sounds of barking dogs calling out in the dark.
Back at the truck, the agent we were looking for finally marches through the bush and out to the road with eighteen people in front of him. One is a 26-year-old woman who is eight-months pregnant. If these people have no criminal records, they'll most likely be "voluntarily returned", which means they'll be put on buses back to their countries. They may or may not attempt this trek again, although, according to a 2005 study by UC-San Diego's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 78 percent of unauthorized migrants believe it is "very dangerous" to cross the border illegally, and 64 percent know someone who has died in the mountains or in the desert.
"People call them aliens, but they're people," says the agent who apprehended this group. For the time being, they are a people without a coherent policy to handle their presence. And in the absence of sustainable solutions to Mexico's economic frailty and America's legislative deadlock, these littered, ambiguous badlands remain a disappointing metaphor for the status quo.