Everyday, the good, the bad and the ugly play their parts in a macabre dance of death and tribulation on San Diego County's southern border, the epicenter of a raging national immigration debate.
The labels good and bad depend on one's stance on the issue. Lost in the detractions and name-calling of the argument is the ugly, the fact that undocumented Mexican border crossers no one wants to recognize-a population of people who are generally poor, though not abjectly-have been dying at the rate of one-a-day for nearly a decade now.
One of them, Aldo Ramirez, is a big man on a little man's frame. He stands several inches below 6 feet, with classic Mexican looks. A bushy black mustache supports his prominent Latino nose, and his alert, dark brown eyes match his caramel skin.
After his late-night cleaning shift in a downtown restaurant he's candid and full of knowledge in talking about his illegal entry into the United States, his means of staying and his plans to return someday to Mexico.
He wears sharp cowboy boots, a tawny, 10-gallon hat and a new leather coat. His rough hands are ring-free. The small paunch on his 40-year-old frame hangs gently over an ornate, metal belt buckle. There is a sense of distance about him, a certain detachment that imparts an aloof impression; an almost blue-blooded pride. That feel, combined with a perpetual air of seriousness, is broken at times by a disarming smile and contagious chuckle.
A quiet man, cordial and polite, he keeps to himself unless spoken to, and even then doesn't seem to have much to say. To address him is to pull him from the preoccupation of some other world, one where he's not expected to talk.
His staid, slightly bored expression livens slightly as he talks about his decision, at age 30, to cross the border into the United States to work. The decision was brought about when his job as a laborer-in a small village three hours south of the border-fell through.
There was a sense of happiness, he says, at having both made that decision and resolved his immediate future. He waited two months for his time to cross the border. The deal with the coyote, or pollero-names given to the Mexican smugglers-was arranged through a friend and cost him $1,500.
“You never pay until you get across,” he reiterates several times.
In the dead of winter, he faced the freezing cold of the East County high desert in a two-day march he hopes to never repeat. The day after his group's arrival, an uncle made his way to the cramped safe house where he was staying, somewhere east of San Diego, with the pay off. There were about 15 in the group-men, women and children-and they had the luck.
“God is first,” he says, “because God gives it.” In the end though, it all depends on the luck.
You can almost see it sometimes, he says. The lucky ones have an aura about them.
“Why should I have made it?” he asks in his dispassionate Spanish. “Why should I have survived out there in the desert in the winter, for two days, in only a thin jacket, with no food, when better-prepared people get left or die everyday?”
If it was luck that ultimately got him to San Diego, it was common sense that told him to dress lightly, leave all jewelry and money at home and carry nothing-valuables are life-threatening.
Despite making the trip, and having garnered an intimate encounter with a coyote, Ramirez doesn't seem aware of the dizzying complexity organized smuggling rings have assumed in the last decade.
A Border Patrol public-information officer and former undercover agent in the smuggling interdiction units, Raul Villarreal is well versed in the sophisticated structure the groups have developed in response to federal programs that have militarized parts of the border.
The black-market industry has evolved, over decades, into a cutthroat commerce plagued by kidnapping, extortion and racketeering. Villarreal details an operational schematic rivaling the complexity of the world's most elite drug cartels and Al Qaeda.
“To these smugglers, people are a commodity,” Villarreal says. “Like that chair over there-if the chair breaks, you get a new one. If an [attempted border crosser] breaks a leg, they're abandoned and the smuggler picks up another. If they can't pay their fee when they get to this side, they're beaten badly and dumped in Mexico. They're literally kidnapped when they get here, held in a safe house until someone pays their way out.”
Safe houses are packed with new arrivals awaiting de facto ransom money from a friend or relative on this side of the border. Newly arrived human cargo is bought and traded by other safe houses to clear the books and make room for new arrivals, much as bad credit is traded among collection companies.
Disparate cells in the organizations work unbeknownst to each other, carrying out specific tasks in a multi-layered design that's difficult to track. One ring brings in new recruits while another is in charge of arrangements-gathering the new cargo for a run and verifying their ability to pay. Yet another carries out the actual border crossing and still others deal with the smuggled immigrants on this side of the border.
“All they really want to know is that you can pay on the other side,” Villarreal says. “These days they just ask if you have a number-a cell phone number for somebody on the other side to come and pay your way out.”
Looking for the path of least resistance, smugglers have opted to attempt inhospitable desert routes rather than try to penetrate a daunting Border Patrol presence along the westernmost 14 miles of border, the San Diego Sector, which was beefed up by a program called Operation Gatekeeper in 1994.
Economics demands they carry greater and greater numbers of people to make the much longer trips profitable-a recipe for disaster.
While Ramirez bested the inhospitable climes of East County desert, “Tattoo” Martinez made the trip in relative comfort, crossing the border at 450 miles per hour and 30,000 feet in the air-coach class. After overstaying his visa, he's remained in San Diego for more than 10 years.
A short man, past 40, with the easy-going nature and perpetual smile of people half his age, Martinez derived his nickname from the Fantasy Island TV character. It was the gift of American friends-bartenders and waiters-at one of the downtown restaurants where he works. It's a moniker he carries with pride-testament to his successful acclimation into Anglo-Saxon culture.
The ubiquitous smile and outgoing nature are the signs of a man genuinely happy to be where he is and doing what he's doing. His shaved head shines with a brilliance nearly equaling that of his chocolate-brown eyes. Bushy eyebrows and his caramel complexion lend something of a Mediterranean flair.
He listens quietly as Ramirez recounts the details of his trek through the Mexican countryside and concurs with him that the journey is worst for the Central and South Americans who are forced to push through Mexico first. The Mexicans are tough on them, they say; many are robbed and beaten before they reach the U.S. border.
The situation's created an immigration fiasco at Mexico's impoverished southern border, one every bit as trying as the American predicament.
“It's ironic,” says Kelly Lytle-Hernandez, a fellow in the University of California, San Diego department of ethnic studies and author of a forthcoming book, Cowboys and Mexicans: Race Nations and the U.S. Border Patrol 1924-2001. “They have an operation at their southern border much like Gatekeeper that's guilty of the same injustices they accuse the United States of.”
Ramirez details run-ins with modern-day highwaymen and shakedowns from corrupt Mexican narcotics agents-before he even left Mexico. He describes doing business with the coyote as one would with a pimp or drug dealer-with full cognizance that money is the only thing that matters.
Villarreal explains that coyotes where viewed just three generations ago as something of heroes in Mexican culture, entrusted with the care and welfare of their human cargo-a charge they took to heart. Later generations, however, started caring more about the money than the people. In the past decade, reacting to U.S. and Mexican measures that have made the process far more difficult and dangerous, the business has become notoriously unscrupulous.
Tattoo's girlfriend Laura, nearly his height, with a stout frame, long black hair, large brown eyes and dark skin, appears constantly to be on the verge of the giggles. Everything seems to amuse her-an endearing characteristic that meshes well with her boyfriend's demeanor.
The two are happy here in the U.S. but don't plan to stay. He wants to save $30,000, with which he says he can retire-or at least semi-retire-in Mexico. He plans to find a small village outside of Mexico City where he can settle down. He will never, he says, return to the capitol.
He spent his first 27 years there and hated it. He talks of the polluted air, the crime, institutional corruption and the depressingly emaciated dogs that run the streets. They're the same strays that can be seen on any corner in Tijuana, and he says they defecate throughout the city.
His lip curls almost indiscernibly as he reverts to Spanish-street lingo with sentences full of chinga and pinche-in talking about the process of petrifaction that turns the ever-present dog feces to white dust that gets kicked up into the air to mix with the tons of car exhaust, cigarette smoke and every other carcinogen that doesn't escape the windless confines of the city. It's a dirty and overpopulated place where he was forced to eek out a living in the streets.
From the abject poverty of the Distrito Federal, he skips forward to the love he says Mexicans hold for the United States-a place they view as a sort of rich, powerful and benevolent older brother.
“If you ask most Mexicans, they would give their lives for the United States,” he says, gaining a nod of tacit acknowledgement from Ramirez. “And that's not just Mexicans here, but in Mexico, too-we love this country.”
He talks of the sense of justice, clean-living, polite behavior and appreciation for life enjoyed by people living in the U.S.-and of the way Mexican men and women seem to change on entering the country, giving up bad habits and vices.
The contrasting histories of Ramirez and Martinez and their completely different methods of entering the U.S. are symbolic of the immigration quandary. The problem is so complex, so pervasive and with so many different faces that generalizations-and easy answers-are impossible.
The undocumented immigrants traversing the inhospitable climes of Southeast California, Arizona and Texas everyday are not the destitute criminals and drug-carriers that popular perception suggests-though those people are surely crossing, as well.
“Generalizing is a bad thing to do,” Villarreal says, “but generally speaking the people I'm apprehending [at the border] are not starving and poor. I've seen starving people in Somalia, on TV, and these people are not starving. I do see poor people, but I also see people with new sneakers, nice clothes and educations hopping the fence. A lot of these people had a neighbor who crossed the border and now they see he has a brand-new pickup truck and he's doing well.”
University of Pennsylvania professor of Sociology and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, Douglas S. Massey, reports in an article in The American Prospect, that historically it's not the poor and destitute of a country that emigrate.
Immigration, he says, is mostly the result of industrialization and the upheaval the process has on traditional markets. That disruption-in conjunction with a subsequent lack of financial security-leads many to search for alternative sources of capital. For generations, well-beaten paths in Mexico have led to the U.S.
“Emigration does not stem from a lack of development but from development itself,” he writes. “No nation has undergone industrialization without a massive displacement of people from traditional livelihoods, which are mainly located in the countryside.... In the course of industrialization, for example, Europe exported 54 million people.”
He goes on to point out that a doctrine of increased industrialization, under former Mexican President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), created just such a disruption.
David Shirk, a coordinator in the University of California San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, says that upheaval, combined with several other factors in the 1980s, sent Mexico's economy in a downward spiral that hit bottom in 1994 with the crash of the peso.
“Mexico's poor are far poorer today than they were 20 years ago,” he says, estimating that in adjusted 2003 real dollars they have just 60 percent of the spending power enjoyed in 1981.
To counter domestic shortages, Massey estimates undocumented Mexicans send up to $4 billion home every year.
U.S. Policy and San Diego Sector
A watershed moment in the history of United States security forces passed relatively quietly on March 1, 2003.
Not since the creation of the Department of Defense in September 1947 has the country witnessed the consequence of that day four months ago-the operational commencement of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Twenty-two formerly disparate agencies are now under the umbrella of DHS, a move intended to make homeland security more fluid and efficient.
The department's mobile uniformed law enforcement arm-which patrols between, not at U.S. ports of entry-is the United States Border Patrol.
After spending the first 75 years of its history under the auspices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), Border Patrol is now part of DHS' Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Despite changes in the upper-level schematics of the organization-and the fact that federal administrators will have to adjust to sharing responsibilities with agencies that were formerly competitors in the security business-work at the field level will remain the same.
Border Patrol, unlike INS, made the transition from DOJ to DHS intact. Twenty-one divisions across the nation continue to report to Border Patrol Chief Gustavo De Lavina in Washington, D.C., who in turn reports to Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, head of the CBP.
The smallest, most controversial, most expensive and most rigidly guarded of those 21 Border Patrol divisions is San Diego Sector, the model sector for the entire system.
With 2,200 of the Border Patrol's unprecedented 10,200 agents nationwide, and a budget that's had more than $1 billion pumped into it since the commencement of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, parts of San Diego's 66 miles of border with Mexico are the most heavily fortified in the country's history-and most traversed, both legally and illegally.
Gatekeeper, progeny of the Clinton/Reno administration, is currently between Phases 4 and 5 of a multi-year process that has seen the erection of 14 miles of state-of-the art, triple-tier fencing, cutting-edge electronic surveillance technology, stadium lighting and an unprecedented presence of manpower. It's been hailed as a resounding success by the Border Patrol and some of those calling for stricter border measures.
Immigration-rights activists call it genocide.
They point out that every year since the inception of Gatekeeper, undocumented immigrant deaths have both risen and moved farther into the foreboding high desert.
The Border Patrol, for its part, says it forces no one to cross the border.
“We saw the mountains and the desert as natural barriers,” Villarreal says. “We never imagined they would actually try to traverse those areas.”
All of which amounts to slightly less than a hill of Tijuana beans to Ramirez and Martinez. Like many in the undocumented community, they've little to say concerning the raging debate.
In making the trip alive and noiselessly trumping fickle odds, Ramirez bested state-of-the-art technology, some the world's greatest aerial surveillance, those 2,200 armed Border Patrol agents-and $1 billion U.S. dollars.
All of which begs his own question: Why should he have made it?
How did an unemployed, uneducated, poor Mexican man, with average physical endowments and little more than his keen, cowboy senses make it across one of the most contentious and heavily guarded borders in the world?
More importantly, how have thousands-hundreds of thousands-like him beaten a United States policy that calls for the apprehension and return of every undocumented border-crosser along the nation's 2,000 miles of southern boundary?
The fact so many Mexicans, often uneducated and poor, are defying an express United States federal directive-en masse and without stop-is the symptomatic fallout of a schizophrenic U.S. non-policy on immigration that's evolved over decades of economically driven political caprices.
It's a craven policy at its worst-a perverse example of treating a situation by steadfastly refusing to treat it-and economically brilliant at its best; one that's content to treat 2,000 civilian deaths in the past eight years as the acceptable costs of doing business.
“This policy is not used to stop illegal immigration,” Martinez says in clean English, heavily accented with his native, Mexico City Spanish. “It's used to control immigration-it's a balance, equilibrium.”
The sentiment brings to the fore questions asked by many-most vocally among a burgeoning population of vigilante groups springing up in Arizona and Texas.
Whether or not the U.S. government could completely shut down the southern borders is a rhetorical question.
Why it has not done so, in the face of stated policy, is a question that raises blood pressures on both sides of the immigration issue and a Pandora's box of economic and ethical quagmires.