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Television Used in Texas to Stem Flow of Illegals

Times Staff Writer

Tucked away in a complex of offices next to a bustling international bridge, Steven Brockway sits in a control room and watches 11 television screens flashing grainy black and white images.

On several sets, groups of men and women huddle next to a fence known as the “Tortilla Curtain,” waiting for an opportunity to escape. Vehicles speed in and out of view. When groups or individuals dart to the safety of the nearby barrio, Brockway uses controls to adjust the cameras to follow their path.

“Two just headed up Chihuahua Street,” Brockway says into a radio, after observing two people emerge from a group and scamper up an alley.

Almost instantaneously, a van chases them back.

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“We’re just trying to keep them contained,” explains R.M. Worsham, Brockway’s superior.

Both men are members of the U.S. Border Patrol, which engages in the daily game of cat and mouse that is as much a part of the border region as the Rio Grande. Playing the role of the unfortunate mice on the screens are the thousands of illegal aliens who daily seek to cross the river and enter the United States from Mexico.

But, in this case, the game has a distinctly high-technology cast to it. Because of a unique system employed here and now being introduced elsewhere along the border, agents stationed in a central office can monitor the progress of aliens entering the country at 11 heavily trafficked points spanning nine miles. The technologically advanced cameras set up at the 11 crossings also operate in the darkness, taking advantage of the limited lighting from street lamps, stars and other sources.

“He’s doing the job of 11 men,” Worsham, a supervisory agent, said of Brockway. “There’s no question that these cameras have been an asset.”

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The cameras are the centerpiece of the many high-technology efforts being employed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, parent body of the Border Patrol, in an effort to curb the ever-increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants entering the United States from Mexico.

In El Paso, INS officials laud the success of the camera program. It certainly hasn’t stopped the flow of illegal aliens--they are believed to be entering at a record pace--but authorities say the cameras have resulted in additional arrests and have helped the Border Patrol to make maximum use of its limited resources by identifying key entry routes and smuggling patterns--and even pinpointing smugglers.

“We don’t have to have an officer in every hole in the fence,” explained Larry Richardson, chief patrol agent here.

The concept has been so successful that it is being expanded. Similar systems, costing about $250,000 apiece, are being installed at border posts in Laredo, Tex., and the Arizona communities of Nogales and San Luis. In addition, officials are contemplating a future use of such cameras in other areas, including, possibly, the San Diego border community of San Ysidro--the busiest crossing point for illegal aliens.

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“It’s effective because it makes better utilization of our people,” said Verne Jervis, an INS spokesman in Washington. “It robs intruders of the cover of darkness.”

In El Paso, the system went into use as a pilot program in the spring of 1984. El Paso was selected, Richardson said, largely because its geography and the proliferation of city light along the border make it a difficult place to use the infrared lighting devices that are also used extensively by the Border Patrol.

The border here is a place where two sprawling metropolitan areas housing more than 1.5 million people are separated only by the meager flows of the Rio Grande, which is often no more than knee-deep. Unlike San Diego and Tijuana, whose downtowns are 20 miles apart, the central areas of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are virtually contiguous.

Once aliens cross into the crowded neighborhoods of south El Paso, officials say it is very difficult to catch them. In El Paso, agents adopt a containment strategy aimed at keeping aliens pinned as close to the river as possible; the idea is to prevent them from entering the adjoining residential and business areas.

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While the many street and traffic lights interfere with the use of infrared devices, the cameras take advantage of that light.

The system used in El Paso, Richardson said, was devised by RCA Corp. under a federal contract. The 11 cameras, which send out microwave signals back to the control room, were set up at favored crossing points, such as railroad tracks, bridges and the many gaping holes in the Tortilla Curtain. The white, cylindrical devices were posted high, and as unobtrusively as possible, atop telephone poles, buildings and other structures. Vandalism has not been a serious problem. Agents also have the capability to tape what the cameras show them.

The heart of the system is the central control room, situated in a group of offices next to the busy Paso del Norte Bridge leading from El Paso to Juarez. In the hallways outside the control room, the air is filled with the pungent aroma of seized marijuana being held in a nearby storeroom.

Inside the control room, one or two Border Patrol officers generally monitor the 11 screens at all times. The officers can zoom, pan, tilt and otherwise maneuver the cameras to follow action along the border. With their radio hookups, the officers can alert specific Border Patrol units about the movement of aliens under observation.

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The agents working the monitors have to be intimately familiar with the terrain covered by the cameras in order to identify possible escape paths--including streets, railroad tracks, tunnels or other routes--and alert field agents. In El Paso, as in other border areas, agents refer to heavily trafficked areas with nicknames such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Headgates and the Sand Hills.

“It’s no benefit to have someone there watching the aliens who doesn’t know how to intercept them,” agent Worsham said.

The system is far from perfect. The cameras can be disrupted by the high winds that hit West Texas in the spring and the heavy rains of summer. On a recent day, two of the 11 cameras were out of commission. Border Patrol technicians handle most repairs, Richardson said.

“Let that wind start blowing, and get a little rain on the lens, and the cameras are all over the place,” Worsham said.

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The screens continually show varying numbers of people attempting to enter the United States illegally.

Early in the morning, when commuting aliens such as maids and gardeners are leaving for work, large numbers of undocumented immigrants can be seen along the battered fence that follows the northern bank of the Rio Grande. In the river itself, men known as cargadores, or carriers, use their backs and shoulders to hoist aliens across the river for the equivalent of 15 cents. The images on the screens depict a place as busy as rush-hour rail commuter stations in the United States.

On a recent day, Brockway was watching a group of about 30 aliens huddled on the cement-filled northern bank of the Rio Grande, awaiting their opportunity to enter the south El Paso neighborhood known as El Segundo Barrio. Nearby, Border Patrol vans lingered, waiting for any indication that they would try to make their move.

Approached by a reporter, the aliens said they had no idea they were being monitored by cameras. But, they said, it didn’t make any difference to them.

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“We know la migra (the Border Patrol) is here,” said Jose Luis Rivera Rocha, a 25-year-old resident of Chihuahua City who was waiting at the fence with the rest of the group. “But we have to cross; we’re looking for work. Why don’t they use their cameras to catch some of the delinquents who hang around here? We’re not trying to hurt anyone.”


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