Though the Democratic Party has traditionally been recipient of Hispanic support, the Republicans-witness George W. Bush's smattering of Spanish and close relationship with Mexican President Vicente Fox-has courted the Latino vote more aggressively in the past several elections; and they are well aware that the Chicano community, sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, is unforgiving of stiff border measures.
Victor Hanson, a professor at California State University, Fresno, calls the Latino vote the “genie in the bottle”-one that has latent swing-vote power that's so far failed to materialize at the polls.
In a San Diego lecture touting his new book, Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, Hanson said both parties-particularly the GOP-are highly influenced by demands of American big business, a powerful constituency that depended heavily on imported cheap labor through the 1990s.
“In 1991 over 14,000 fines were issued to employers [contracting undocumented immigrant labor]; in 2001 there were less than 150 nationwide,” Shirk says.
A Boston University study says the unprecedented growth of the U.S. economy during that time simply would not have been possible without illegal labor, and a good economy, Massey points out, is the surest way to quell the voices calling for stricter border controls.
As a result, it's been in the interest of the big parties, through the past decade, to defy stated policy-or use it as a de facto control of illegal immigration, not an end to it.
Stripped of superfluities, the problem is as simple as produce, Hanson believes.
“When it comes down to American grown nuts, or the same nuts from Eastern Europe, that sell for $1 [per] pound less, American consumers don't care about pesticides, carcinogens, or the slave labor that went into the harvest... they want cheaper prices.”
It's highly unlikely that Americans will ever-not even with the blood of 2,000 souls at their feet-deem the toll too steep when stopping the deaths would mean the end of $13 Converse sneakers, cheap fruit and $8 an hour for yard work.
The current state of affairs-mass illegal immigration, death at the borders and the changing complexion of American culture-has evolved over decades. It is the progeny of political wills and a botched policy that everyone can criticize and one for which nobody wants to take responsibility-a nameless, faceless third-party on which to hang censure.
It is full of real faces, however, on all sides.
Border Patrol agent Raleigh Leonard's countenance invites a visitor to like him before he speaks. He's clean cut, with quiet good looks, and speaks coherently with a diction and fluency that suggest higher education. His green eyes, penetrating, alert and uncompromising, meet a gaze directly. He carries the seriousness of his uniform and weapon with a disarming ease of character and sense of genuine concern.
Appearing to be in his late 30s, his black hair shows the first signs of premature salting. The jade eyes he took from his Irish father; the caramel complexion came by way of his Mexican mother. The gray in his dark hair comes with the position-public information officer for the San Diego Sector-one that's been thrust into the hot seat over the past year.
As the man charged with communicating Border Patrol activities to the media, Leonard has, of late, felt the full weight of his office-a temporary duty assigned to him 12 years ago.
Thirteen undocumented immigrants have died in four different automobile accidents since June 2002, the result of high-speed chases involving both Border Patrol and the California Highway Patrol. Those seeking tighter border security call the chase results regrettable, but the means necessary. Migrant-rights proponents call it murder-premeditated and racist.
“They're chasing these people to death,” says immigrant advocate and local radio show host, Enrique Morones. “If this was the Canadian border, you wouldn't see this-no way.”
Caught between contentious factions on both sides of the border issue, Leonard understands the term “under the gun” in a way most never will.
If he's gun shy, however, it doesn't show. Calm, patient and eager to explain the Border Patrol view, he seems unguarded in his responses, though at some points it becomes apparent he's toeing the company line-for one of the most opaque and tight-lipped of the federal government's security agencies. The thin line surrounding the Border Patrol is anything but thin; three months of CityBeat investigation and attempted contacts didn't net a single comment from a Border Patrol field agent.
Part of the reticent behavior (which, ironically, adds fuel to advocacy fire) is no doubt derived from the fact that claims of physical and verbal abuse against the Border Patrol are ubiquitous from the immigration advocacy camps. Three months of investigation unearthed none that were substantiated or backed with empirical evidence; advocates claim those suffering abuse are usually removed to Mexico or hesitant to come forward.
The Internal Affairs office of CBP indicates that in 2002, 200 claims of abuse were filed against border agents in 110,000 apprehensions. After investigation it was deemed only three bore merit, a statistic that's nearly identical to arrest-to-complaint ratios in the state Highway Patrol and the San Diego Police Department.
“That's pretty remarkable,” Villarreal says. That's 110,000 human contacts, 110,000 opportunities for something to go wrong, which is why our efforts are going more and more towards interdiction [television warnings, undercover smuggling efforts]-stop them before we have to have physical confrontation.”
Lytle-Hernandez talks about the new Border Patrol, a kinder, gentler one that's evolved over the past several decades into a racially diverse and more open agency. The new face, she says, even with a Latino element that comprises 44 percent of the agency's population, isn't enough for many to erase the reputation of an organization that, until WWII was largely white with a repute for brutality, vengeance and systematic discrimination.
“They're nice guys,” she says. “The problem for many people is that today, when an incident happens it brings back a rush of memories of the way Border Patrol used to be, just as police abuse against an African-American will bring back memories of lynchings.”
Keeping Things Clear
Leonard's office in the glistening, tinted-glass and concrete structure that houses San Diego Sector headquarters in Chula Vista-haphazardly piled with boxes, books, forms and visual demonstration cues-is testament to a position under siege. To his left he can look through shaded glass to the building's front entrance, the same one used by Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft during their respective visits over the winter.
Despite Ridge's call for continued good work, a pragmatic look at the big picture shows an agency twisting in the vice-like grip of the great squeeze; the country seems to want both stricter and more lax control of borders and immigration.
A good soldier more than anything, Leonard doesn't sway in his response to the situation.
“The President has asked us to complete a mission,” he says, referring to zero illegal-immigration policy. “We're confident we can and will achieve that mission with the assets we've been given.”
He talks in detail about the people trying to cross the border, their collective lot, and the forces that have convinced them to risk life to find a better one-it's clear the Border Patrol is keenly aware of the background of the people they're encountering.
“We're doing the job that was given to us and we're treating the people we apprehend with dignity and respect. I believe that all people are basically built emotionally the same. I don't see how a person could see a young child trying to cross the border to make a better life and not feel some kind of human compassion.”
In response to questions of desensitization-a half-million apprehensions since 1994-and demoralization-the Census Bureau says more than 8 million undocumented immigrants are successfully living in the United States-Leonard says both are enemies common to law enforcement.
“If you take it personal, you will have problems,” he says. “You have to train yourself to avoid those pitfalls. You have to ask yourself everyday, ‘What's going to get me home to my family without having to take a life?'”
A pile of letters sits in a basket across from him on his tidy desktop-all from undocumented immigrants on both sides of the border. The heap is his daily reminder, a stack of faces to attach to the weight of the job the Border Patrol's been asked to do. Somewhere near the top of the pile is a simple letter from a Mexican boy-his father, an unwitting and probably powerless passenger in a van crammed with undocumented immigrants, died in a high-speed Border Patrol pursuit. In the letter the boy plaintively asks why it was necessary to kill his father.
Leonard slowly places the paper back on top of the pile as awkwardness sets in. For the first time he fails to meet a gaze directly-there's no protocol for proper reaction in such moments. He nods his head slowly, staring at his desk.
“That's my reminder,” he says quietly. “That's what helps to keep things clear.”
Native San Diegan Enrique Morones is one of the most vocal voices in the immigration advocacy community.
The son of a Mexican businessman who moved his family to the United States, his two older siblings were born in the Old Country. He was the first person, in 1998, to obtain dual citizenship in Mexico and the United States.
He professes pride in San Diego, but refers often to his passion for Mexico.
In many ways-beyond the obvious-he's diametrically opposed to Raleigh Leonard. Though they share a firm and unbending fervor for their divergent beliefs, they've taken different routes in arriving at their respective positions.
Leonard is a company man, a good soldier, committed to the Border Patrol and the successful completion of the agency's mission. Morones, while no less firm in his support of Mexican emigrants, is an independent force-an erudite rebel who will not compromise in his attack on what he calls genocide and racism.
Now in his 40s, Morones is 30 pounds removed from the physique that brought him medals as a track and distance runner at St. Augustine High. The former vice president for Latino marketing with the San Diego Padres, he is now the host of the “Morones por la Tarde” radio show and president of the Vicente Fox Migrant Council, as well as Border Angels-an organization he created to establish water and cold-weather stations in the inhospitable passages of East County.
A contributor to a litany of print media outlets, as well as a member of several venerable boards of directors, he's been listed as one of the 100 most influential Latinos in the United States. Feb. 25, 1998 was declared Enrique Morones day in both the city and county of San Diego.
A man accustomed to the media spotlight, he's quick to both rattle off his list of accomplishments and to proffer his staunch criticism of the U.S. government, Border Patrol, the California Highway Patrol, the GOP and the George Bushes. He claims sweeping discrimination, abuse of power and upper-level conspiracy in the Border Patrol.
Not listed in his bio is the fact he's the middle of five well educated children-the first born in the U.S.-the prototypical middle child, one whose wayward bent has been directed at the aims of liberalism, migrant rights and iconoclastic reckoning.
In many ways he is exactly what the Chicano community needs, a loud voice, inflexible and not easily cast aside-one not intimidated by attention and not afraid to fight aggressively for the aims of his camp.
His aims are a more consistent national policy on immigration, uniformly humane treatment of apprehended immigrants and the immediate cessation of high-speed chases (though Border Patrol and CHP indicate they've no plans to amend pursuit procedures). With the support of myriad Latino organizations he wields voting and boycott power that's caught the attention of several large institutions-the state of Arizona among them.
“Several of these vigilante groups have started over there [Arizona],” Morones says. “So I called the Governor and told him that if they didn't shut them down immediately, we would call a Latino boycott on all of Arizona.”
While his inexorable prejudice in favor of his own camp has helped bring the plight of undocumented immigrants to the fore, the relentless and sometimes insolent push that's brought both attention and success might just be the basis of a failure to make progress at the border.
The great debate needs, more than anything, an open and frank dialogue if progress is to be made, Hanson says.
“Both sides have to purge themselves of a lot of the baggage they're carrying around before we see progress,” Lytle-Hernandez says.
America's Changing Face
In his book Hanson chronicles the metamorphosis of Mexican immigration to the United States since 1970. The increasingly strong U.S. dollar and a deteriorating Mexican economy, he says, spurred a boom in undocumented immigration that has not ceased.
A June 2002 Northeastern University (Boston) study concluded that 13.6 million new foreign immigrants arrived in the United States between 1990 and 2000, accounting for nearly 42 percent of the nation's entire population growth. A May 2002 report by Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. says that 4.7 million undocumented Mexican immigrants are currently living in the United States.
Those numbers are used by a Hanson theory portending an unprecedented change in the face of American culture. Because of the proximity to Mexico and the relative ease with which undocumented immigrants cross and re-cross the border, he contends, the historic need for immigrants to assimilate to American culture has been eliminated.
Anecdotally, he points to the Central California agricultural belt, namely his native San Joaquin Valley, and the radical demographic and cultural transformation the region has seen since the 1960s-with some small towns today registering Latino populations in the 90 percentile.
“We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us,” Morones counters, pointing out that the Southwestern United States has always been Latino and was, until 1848, Mexican territory.
Whatever the case, the Latino population may already equal the African American population in the United States-decades ahead of its projected catch-up date-and based on current numbers, the expected U.S. population of 570 million in the year 2100 will include 190 million Latinos.
Based on the new numbers, much higher than those counted or anticipated by the U.S. government, one must conclude that far more undocumented immigrants are crossing U.S. borders than the Department of Homeland Security-or the U.S. Immigration Service before it (which pumped $1.2 billion into the Border Patrol in 2002)-is acknowledging.
The Passel study estimates upwards of 700,000 undocumented immigrants entered the United States every year in the latter half of the 1990s. Anecdotal evidence from undocumented immigrants interviewed for this story say the intercept rate is far lower than the 9-out-of-10 statistic given by the Border Patrol.
Current policy is a failure.
It uses the Border Patrol as a Band-Aid to stem a hemorrhage and fails to address the root causes of the problem: a struggling (though developing) Mexican economy that's still a world away from the strength of its U.S. counterpart; a U.S. business sector that needs (and virtually recruits) cheap immigrant labor; and an American public that will not sacrifice the luxury of a price structure that's been lowered unnaturally by cheap (and slave) labor the world over.
As a result, the situation at the border will not change soon-neither the death count nor the incessant undocumented crossings.
In the meantime, beating up the Border Patrol-the most visible component of the U.S. policy paradigm-is like slapping your child to punish the neighbor's kids. The agency will continue its myopic pursuit of the end of the hemorrhage, regardless of criticism and despite limitations.
“[The contentious debate] is a distraction from the real issue,” Shirk says. “Current laws regarding immigration need to be reconsidered to facilitate our need for low-wage labor.”
The single best shot at relief in the foreseeable future is open communication and dialogue among the large segment of the population that has, so far, not weighed in on the topic. “I think we're not going to see true progress until people on both sides change the way they think,” Lytle-Hernandez says.
In an effort to open more eyes to the situation, Shirk offers extra credit to students in the Mexican Migration Project to take a trip with Morones' Border Angels organization to a spot near Campo, an hour east of San Diego in the high desert. There, more than a dozen students, activists and reporters erect aid stations replete with water and clothes.
As a torrid May sun casts temperatures into the 90s, Shirk, sweating and leading a small group through punishing brush and craggy rock formations, talks about the history of the nation state and the age-old attempt to maintain sovereignty through national boundaries.
“You have to limit the number of people you can allow into the country eventually,” a voice says from behind, “But what's that number?”
“Do you?” Shirk asks. “And why?”
Ultimately, his argument contends, natural, global economic forces would absorb the initial inundation of people in the more developed nations and eventually distribute labor, capital and production evenly among borderless nations.
“But that's where I start sounding dangerously like a socialist,” he says.
Taking a break from the demanding hike he scans the sprawling horizon and looks past the distant border fence-a set of dilapidated railroad strips, haphazardly erected as a symbol of America's line in the sand-and into Mexico's high desert.
Somewhere, hundreds of miles south, Ramirez is lounging in his hometown, visiting his three children-and possible new grandchildren.
He left word with his downtown restaurant employer in May that he had crossed back into Tijuana to visit family.
Not to worry, the message concluded, “I'll be back.”