On a scraggly stretch of no-man's-land between the U.S.-Mexico border and Highway 8, Tierra del Sol, a handful of dilapidated homes surrounded by haphazard corrals and beaten vehicles, is squeezed beneath the shade of a dozen scrub oaks. It's what the folks who live in this area of far-East County call town.
Out here, water, life and hospitality are scarce, but if the desert has an abundance of anything, it's darkness. Not the mere absence of adequate reading light that city dwellers know, but the viscous opacity that fills every crevice of the night, commanding hushed tones and resurrecting childhood fears.
That darkness is why every week, hundreds of strangers pass through this desolate station. They come for different reasons, but it's the darkness that attracts them and, in the end, it's the darkness they seek.
A refuge from city lights-one bright dome glowing on the western horizon and another growing larger in the east each year-is what has drawn members of the San Diego Astronomy Association here for decades.
From their high-desert perch, also called Tierra del Sol but considerably more developed than the nearby town, they follow in the footsteps of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Hubble. They study delicate photons of light that have traveled for millions of lightyears over unfathomable distances to reach this same spot with a clarity and intensity unparalleled by their counterparts reaching urban areas.
Over the years, the astronomers have constructed eight observatories at Tierra del Sol-single story, garage-like structures with retractable roofs to house their giant telescopes. On the surrounding 10-acre property, they have established private and public viewing sites and added plumbing and electricity to soften the desert's rough edges.
Built as a platform from which to examine the heavens, the rare combination of dark skies, mild weather, altitude and steady airflow have combined to make Tierra del Sol a world-class astronomy destination. Its facilities rival those of many universities and host thousands of visitors each year.
But the astronomers aren't the only ones probing the darkness of Tierra del Sol.
Less than a mile away, government agents patrol the desert shadows, playing a game of cat-and-mouse that is simultaneously high-tech and very primitive.
Their quarry, the crowds of people lurking on the other side of a 10-foot high steel fence, will eventually attempt to pass through the area in a desperate search for opportunity, money and freedom. From the south side of the fence, it must seem easier to find those things here, under the cover of darkness.
But as they have since the 1920s, United States Border Patrol agents give chase, rounding up all the illegal immigrants they can find, sending most back to Mexico to try their luck another day.
Since the early 1970s the inhabitants of Tierra del Sol have enjoyed a happy coexistence, the astronomers staring skyward as, all around them, the others play their endless game.
The flip of a switch could soon end that.
Facing a new threat of terrorism, the Border Patrol, now under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, has sought to change the rules of the game. The government's proposal to illuminate the border fence with stadium-style lighting is an attempt to curb the mounting tide of undocumented migrants surging through the area.
But the government's plan could cast a harsh glare on the evening's star-spangled sky. By chasing darkness from the Land of the Sun (Tierra del Sol, for the monolingual), the Border Patrol would bring the astronomers greatest foe to their doorstep, and ruin their ability to see in the dark.
It's about 9 p.m. on a Saturday night and Leo Miele, a supervisory Border Patrol agent, is responding to a local resident's report of migrants moving through the area. Crawling along a dirt road in his SUV, he rolls down the driver's side window and leans out.
"We will have to go back to the old-fashion way here," he tells a reporter and photographer along for the ride, pointing his flashlight toward the shoulder of the road. "The reporting party said the aliens crossed this road coming from the south. Right now, I'm looking for indications of where they crossed the road. I've got footprints, but this looks like local traffic right here."
It's called "sign cutting," and while it may seem a bit ridiculous in the age of night vision, seismic sensors, thermal imaging and air support, scouring the ground for the scuffs, shoe prints and trampled vegetation left by border crossers on the run remains one of the most potent tactics in the Border Patrol's arsenal.
As a counter measure, migrants obscure their footprints, go barefoot or wear crude booties made of carpet, cloth and wire. That may explain the lack of prints on the road. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, Miele hops out of the SUV.
"[The resident] is claiming that the guys went up into these rocks, so I don't see why I shouldn't just head over and have a look," he says.
Off the road, away from the truck's lights, the darkness is oppressive. Our three flashlights slice through it, and the desert writhes around us as shadows scurry across our limited fields of vision.
Our group moves in short sprints, we journalists trying to keep up on unfamiliar terrain as Miele pauses briefly to look for tracks and adjust his course. We scramble up the large pile of rocks and find nothing. From there, we follow a faint trail along the rusted remains of a fence and find a small glove in the brush. It's evidence that someone was here, although it's not exactly clear when.
It would be impossible to navigate through the cactus, creosote and rocks if it weren't for the crescent moon, and some nights, when there is no moon or a fog rolls in, agents are forced to rely on Mother Nature's compass.
"I can look up and tell by the stars which direction-there is Orion's belt right there," Miele says, pointing to the constellation with his flashlight. "See it makes an arrow going north. That's helpful when you can see it...."
A little further up the trail, Miele finds a "running W," the zigzag shoeprint left by the generic sneakers border crossers commonly wear. The pattern crumbles when he touches it, a sure sign that the tracks are fresh.
The chase is on and Miele's adrenaline is pumping.
A few hundred yards away, somewhere in the dark distance, dogs bark excitedly, but it's impossible to tell whether it is us, or the so-called aliens, who have their attention. We move faster.
Miele pulls ahead into the shadows as we negotiate a particularly nasty cholla cactus. Suddenly a rustling in the thicket to our left freezes us in our tracks.
Dashing through the desert in an impromptu game of hide-and-go-seek, we never considered the possibility of actually finding someone.
Miele steps out of the shadows and calmly examines the thicket declaring the source of the noise to be an animal, probably. We circle back a few times, sticking close to our guide. We find nothing-yet-but we are reminded, for the first of many times this evening, that the game has very real consequences.
Can something as simple as lights in the desert stem the flow of illegal immigrants?
The Border Patrol is counting on it.
The idea, to illuminate a 20-mile stretch of the border with 50 portable, generator-powered, 4,000-watt lights, similar to those used by construction crews, is a desperate attempt to shore up an area that is difficult to patrol due to its rugged terrain, wide-open spaces and lack of manpower.
For these reasons, and because of increasingly effective enforcement efforts to the west and east, Tierra del Sol has become a popular crossing point.
Agent David Sitchler, a supervisor for the Border Patrol's Campo station who oversees special operations along the 25-mile stretch of border from Campo to the Imperial County line, says more than 40,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended and deported last year in this sector alone. That figure has increased by nearly 10,000 people during three of the past four years, and Sitchler expects a similar surge for 2004.
It's hard to tell if the agents are becoming more adept at catching their prey, or if more are crossing in this sector, but either way the Campo agents have their hands full.
Instead of the lights, the Border Patrol had originally planned to install remote video cameras mounted on 20-foot poles, but contract troubles and administrative reshuffling have delayed those plans indefinitely.
Sitchler says he thinks the lights will make the job a little easier and safer, and plans to have five up and running by the end of the May. They will be positioned less than a mile south of Tierra del Sol with the intent of pushing migrants toward more easily patrolled areas. In addition to acting as a deterrent, the lights will also provide agents with a strategic advantage.
"If they are shining in you're face, you can't see what's behind [them]," Sitchler says. "The aliens can't tell if there is anyone sitting back there."
He acknowledges that the lights are an imperfect solution but insists that something must be done. "This is a portable and temporary fix until we can get the remote video systems in place."
The eventual implantation of border lights near Tierra del Sol is a fact the astronomers concede was inevitable. Several Astronomy Association (SDAA) members said they have watched as the high-tech, brightly lit fence in Imperial Beach expands eastward at the cost of $1 million a mile, and have dreaded its arrival for years. A similar barrier may still be decades off but, provoked by the lights, the club has already canceled improvement plans at Tierra del Sol and started looking for a new site in the Laguna Mountains. But in the interim they are hoping to prolong the life of Tierra del Sol by influencing what type of lights are used and the manner of their deployment.
"We just want to work with the Border Patrol to try to mitigate the impact on us until we can get another site, get the finances together... and get moved," says Brian Staples, president of SDAA. "It's just not something that is going to happen soon, so we would like to work with them."
The SDAA has offered to buy low-pressure sodium light bulbs and light fixtures that would minimize light pollution, but the Border Patrol refused the donation, citing a possible conflict of interest. While Sitchler is working to gather the lights from other sectors, he says his agency is making every effort to be a good neighbor.
In early April, Sitchler attended a community meeting in Boulevard, a small town northeast of Tierra del Sol, to answer questions about the lights. The astronomers' concerns-as well as those of a local hog farmer worried about how the light and associated generator noise would affect his pigs-were pitted against the threats posed by terrorists and smugglers.
Sitchler explained that in 2003, more than 651 aliens classified as OTMs (other than Mexicans) were apprehended and more than $2.8 million worth of marijuana was confiscated along this sector. While no one walked away with solid answers, it was an eye opener for both the Border Patrol and the SDAA.
Today, the astronomers are careful to express support for the Border Patrol's mission when voicing their dissent. "We definitely don't want to stop them from what they need to do, because in reality it's probably a little more important than what we are doing," says Staples.
And Sitchler says the Border Patrol is willing to work with the SDAA to some extent. "I'm retrofitting the lights specifically for [the astronomers] to shield... the upward light pollution..., and we will be having a public meeting after we get the lights up."
Sitchler says he will consider using the special light bulbs but would like to gauge the impact of the lights before he spends thousands of dollars on each unit. "I'd like to put the lights out there and see what the impact is on the environment, the astronomers and the citizens," he says. "To retrofit them now would be a waste of money if they don't affect anybody."
It seems one way or the other, artificial lighting will soon become a part of the landscape along this stretch of the border. "It's a proven method, it works, it's an inconvenience but we have to do something," he says. "We can't let this continue out here."
Bouncing along the dirt road that hugs the border fence in the SUV, it's easy to see how the migrants cross over.
"They come right over or right under," says Miele. "There are lots of little gopher holes in here."
He slows down a bit and shines his light out the window at a mound of dirt and boulders at the base of the fence. The hole, a portal through which countless crossers have started their American experience, has recently been filled in. It's something that makes Miele happy.
Up ahead, the otherwise dark lane is lit up by the running lights of a handful of government vehicles. We pull up to the scene just as agents finish loading eight migrants into a paddy wagon.
An agent says the people were apprehended after they used a ladder to scale the fence. He estimates that another 20 were prevented from crossing.
But sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the back of the van and dressed in baseball caps, jeans, light jackets and T-shirts, they don't look much like criminals-or aliens. Between their feet, some covered with booties, sit gallon jugs of water, their only provisions, and small bags containing their worldly possessions.
The men are quiet and calm and although some look frustrated, none seem distraught. They consent to have their pictures taken and tell us they hail from five different Mexican states.
Our quarry now has a distinctly human face. It's a fact Miele and his colleagues deal with every day and night.
"You can be a Border Patrol agent, but that doesn't mean you're not a humanist," he says. "You have to have compassion for these people. If you're so desperate that you're willing to leave everything behind to come here and try and support your family or yourself, sure I understand that. The fact of the matter remains that it happens to be against the law right now."
For the men in the van, tonight's journey has just begun. From here they will be taken to the Campo station, fingerprinted, questioned and processed. If no red flags are raised and they decline an immigration hearing, they will be returned to Mexico by morning.
"They are just pouring in from all over," says Miele. "There are so many people coming across, you really can't hold everyone for deportation."
As if to emphasize his point, the radio crackles and announces that an agent positioned on the mesa above us, equipped with a night vision scope, has spotted another group of 40 people on the south side.
The paddy wagon pulls away and we head up to the top of the mesa to take a look. Along the way, we're stopped by Supervisory Agent Wes Doyle, who pulls up alongside the Suburban and tells Miele that an anonymous caller has alerted agents to a second group of 40 people planning to cross during the next shift change. The group supposedly contains several OTMs, but he is concerned that the tip might be bogus-a smuggler's ploy to pull agents out of the area they are currently covering.
Before pulling away, he warns Miele to watch his back.
"I'm sure we are starting to aggravate some people and are going to start getting some projectiles," he says.
Continuing up the road, Miele clarifies Doyle's last point. "What Mr. Doyle means, I believe, is that the operations out here are starting to irritate [the smugglers], because with the presence down on the border, they are having to keep their people on the south side and the money is not flowing in," he says. "These guys are all about the money. There are not really any... that are really concerned for their fellow man down there."
He explains that frustrated smugglers tend to throw rocks.
"It's just an intimidation factor to see if they can gain a little bit of ground by pushing the agents out of the area, and of course it gets their aggressions out," Miele says. "But if they can injure an agent, they will do it."
Protecting officer safety also happens to be one of the main reasons for installing the proposed lights, Border Patrol officials say. "I guess their line of reasoning would be by illuminating the area, you leave your agents less open to ambush by people using the dark as concealment," he says. "Anything that's going to increase the safety of the work environment for my agents I'm all for."
We arrive at our destination and examine the desert through the night-vision scope mounted in the back of the agent's pickup truck. As we study the monitor, a pink blip moves slightly in sea of green. Miele thinks it's a person and we drive down to take a look.
Ten minutes later, after a brief search through the brush, we find three men-Ortiz, 33; Daniel, 21; and Agusto, 43-lying amidst some large boulders and desert trees. Miele asks us to watch them while he searches briefly, and unsuccessfully, for their smuggler-guide in the surrounding area. Dressed in light jackets and jeans, each of the men carries a gallon of orange juice and a backpack. They sit quietly until he returns. We all walk back to the road where several agents help Miele frisk the men and prepare them for transport.
An agent examines the contents of their bags, removing clothing, food and carefully folded pieces of cardboard containing birth certificates and photos of loved ones. Both Daniel and Ortiz say they're from Oaxaca and headed for Encinitas and San Francisco, respectively. Agusto says he left Chiapas, Mexico's most southern state, two months ago and spent time working in Ensenada before crossing the border, heading for Los Angeles.
Sitting on the side of the road Daniel is visibly upset. Miele says he could be uneducated, mentally ill or emotionally unbalanced. To us, he just looks scared.
The crescent moon has set in the west and overhead the stars are burning with a renewed intensity in the darkest part of the sky. It's prime viewing time and in the parking lot below the observatories, the public viewing pads are crowded with dozens of tripod-mounted telescopes. Small groups of people mill about, discussing the rings of Saturn, globular clusters and life here on Earth.
The SDAA boasts more than 600 active members who come from all over the county to enjoy their hobby and the company of their fellow astronomers, and to revel in the numbing tranquility of the desert night.
Most of those out tonight are friendly, more than willing to offer a curious stranger a cup of coffee and a guided tour of the evening's sky.
They eagerly point out their favorite features, bringing the Sombrero Galaxy into focus in the southern sky and punching the next selection into their computerized telescopes with impatient glee. Each new position reveals another amazing site, and while they have the urge to show them all off, they know that each one is worthy of a lifetime of appreciation.
Later, a few of the SDAA organizers gather in the private observatory of Brian MacFarland, an SDAA board member, and take turns answering questions over a round of beers. They try to explain what it is that attracts these truck drivers, produce workers, engineers, housewives and college professors to the stars.
With the roof rolled back and MacFarland's 12.5-inch telescope in the center of the room, they can't resist bringing more heavenly bodies into focus while listening to each other's answers.
"We have the guy who can easily afford $100,000 for every piece of possible equipment that he wants, and we have the guy who is hard pressed to buy a $100 pair of binoculars, but they all share the love of looking up and wondering what's up there and maybe the search for something that is illusive," says Staples, the club's president. "For the three of us here, probably the fainter and fuzzier and harder it is to find-the more reward there is in actually finding it. It's like a treasure hunt."
"It's the only way that I'm ever going to get a chance to travel into space," says Scott Baker, the club's vice president. "To envision myself in some spaceship cruising by some nebula or globular cluster and looking at it."
Staples jumps back in expanding on the enormity of the cosmos. "It's this kind of a contemplative exercise that I go through," he says. "When I look at the immensity of it all, that everything that I could possibly do in my life has virtually no effect on the universe, in reality it gives you a strange perspective on things."
The conversation stops as we appreciate a shimmering ball of greenish light that MacFarland has located. It has a wispy semicircle to its left, giving the light in the center the appearance of a Cheerio. It's the Ring Nebula, remnants of star that has blown out of its outer shell.
With some prodding, MacFarland gives his answer.
"There's not a whole lot of philosophizing in it for me," he says. "Part of it is I build my own scope and I like to do astrophotography. So it's just a hobby and I learned something doing it all and it's challenging and difficult and it beats the hell out of TV."
Watching TV is not something astronomers spend a lot of time doing. Some of the SDAA diehards spend the entire weekend at Tierra del Sol, staying up all night and sleeping in their observatories during the day. One member, whose observatory has been transformed into a rather nice apartment, sometimes stays out here for two weeks or more.
"It's interesting because the cycle of [TV viewers'] lives revolve around their weekly schedule. But the cycle of our lives out here revolves around this," Staples says, pointing to the shimmering sky. "This goes around once a year. If you came out here a year from tonight, the sky would be the same but if you came out six months from now it would be completely different."
"We are tuned into the new moon," says Baker.
All of this may seem a bit geeky-something everyone present is aware of-but the astronomers of the SDAA don't seem all that odd. Sure they can throw around celestial jargon, covet their neighbor's equipment and expend time and money on their pastime with an intensity that would put any gearhead, surfer or musician to shame, but in the end, they're simply doing what they love.
MacFarland brings Jupiter into view, and we each take a look at the brilliant planet and the moons that surround it. The conversation turns toward the immigration conundrum. Some express sympathy for the immigrants while others back the Border Patrol. No one has any solutions.
Someone brings up the proposed lights and Staples says he hopes the Border Patrol will agree to turn them off a few weekends a month, otherwise he fears the SDAA is finished.
Without Tierra del Sol, the club will lose its anchor. Membership will decline, and as it does, the club will lose its ability to bring the stars closer to San Diegans, which is something the SDAA does almost every night of the year by hosting public star parties at local schools and nature centers and events like Stars in the Park at Balboa Park.
The SDAA has appealed to Congressman Bob Filner, who attended the Boulevard meeting and is scheduled to visit Tierra del Sol in August. He may be able to apply some political muscle, but Staples and the others fear that by then it could be too late.
All three turn back to the telescope as MacFarland brings another star into focus. Photons from the distant past combine to form an image in the present. At the moment, no one is worried about the future, and their smiles reflect raw starlight in the darkness.