From the perspective of the U.S. Border Patrol, it's been a pretty good year: Smuggling is reportedly down. A top Customs and Border official gave agents discretion to patrol city streets for illegal immigrants. At least two men were captured in the border-tunnel phenomenon. And a string of immigrant deaths in high-speed chases prompted construction of a deterrent wall, rather than a reevaluation of Border Patrol policy.
Marijuana seizures along the San Diego-Mexico border reportedly dropped from 298,161 pounds in 2002 to 286,847 pounds in 2003, while immigrant detainees dropped from 55,271 to 47,570. A San Diego Union-Tribune report says tighter security at the borders and smugglers finding alternative routes are possible explanations for the decline.
In the last year, a popular surrogate to the westbound Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 8 (connecting Imperial and San Diego counties) has been the eastbound lane. Smugglers turned off their lights, crossed the median and drove into oncoming traffic right past the checkpoint; however, some were spotted and pursued.
Highway Patrol officers and Border Patrol agents, often using spike strips to deflate tires, chased 15 Mexicans to their deaths on the I-8 corridor last year. In six high-speed pursuits, 39 immigrants were injured. Two alleged smugglers, involved in a January crash that left three dead and 12 injured, were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to more than 15 years in prison apiece.
In October, Caltrans initiated construction on a 12-foot-tall, three-mile wall along the offending section of I-8 to close the precarious passage, but detractors say the blockade will only send smugglers into oncoming traffic farther back from the checkpoint, and that the real solution would be a ban on high-speed chases.
Another alternative drug- and immigrant-smuggling route that dusted headlines last year was the cross-border tunnel. At least seven of the suspected digs were discovered, including an ostentatiously placed burrow found in April when two men were arrested with 3,300 pounds of marijuana at the entrance, right underneath a parking lot at the San Ysidro entrance into Tijuana.
The Border Patrol won a major ideological battle in August when the arrest and deportation of a Mexican family on its way to the Mexican Consulate sparked debate over "probable cause" and so-called interior enforcement. Consulate officials and immigrant advocates were outraged that the arrests were so close to the consulate office in Little Italy, and they filed a complaint, claiming the family was racially profiled.
In response, a Border Patrol chief issued a directive that there would be no "interior enforcement or city patrol operations" near residences or employment facilities. However, a high-ranking U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection official later quashed the order, giving individual agents carte blanche to profile and deport immigrants with a loose interpretation of probable cause.
Two agents apparently felt they had probable cause later that month when they shot and killed a man who allegedly pulled a knife as he climbed up a Tijuana River levee near San Ysidro.
And in November, federal doormen employed their renewed sense of authority to detain a National City man and his family after an altercation with a J.C. Penney manager and a security guard. The family was stopped on suspicion of shoplifting and National City police officers, hailed to the scene by store officials, called the Border Patrol.
The man's aunt and cousin were deported that day, though no shoplifting accusations were ever officially leveled. The incident prompted the National City City Council to begin a review of Border Patrol methods and launch an investigation into J.C. Penney and the National City Police Department.
Perhaps the only chink in the gatekeepers' self-assured sense of purpose was a September report by California Coastal Commission staff opining that construction of a border fence in the Tijuana estuary is "overkill" and would cause irrecoverable damage to the ecosystem, which includes at least six species of endangered birds. The commission will give its official recommendation to the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in February.Sources: Associated Press, City News Service, Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune