At the end of a rutted dirt road, an agent of the U.S. Border Patrol, dressed in fatigues with a holstered pistol strapped around his waist, stood on the back of a pickup looking into a mounted scope. His attention was directed south, toward the canyons leading from nearby Mexico. As dusk approached, groups of glowing figures became visible in the greenish haze of the scope's viewer.
"They're just starting to come up now," said Agent Chuck Demors, noting that there was still a band of apricot-colored sunlight on the horizon, above the nearby Pacific. "Just wait. In another 45 minutes, when it's dark, they'll be pouring across."
Demors was looking through an infrared scope that, in total darkness, allows him to observe illegal aliens entering the United States from nearby Tijuana.
As night fell, other Border Patrol techniques came into place: a helicopter dived into canyons, its high-powered searchlights seeking aliens hiding in the rugged bush; agents in four-wheel-drive vans and off-road vehicles roamed the terrain; and, in the roughest country, foot officers sporting surreal night-vision goggles positioned themselves to intercept groups of aliens.
Buried Electronic Sensors
Meanwhile, in a sleekly futuristic control room a mile from the border, computer operators monitored hundreds of buried electronic sensors, using their radios to notify field agents of "hits" that indicate the presence of illegal aliens.
All in all, it is a long way from the Border Patrol's traditional image: the lonely agent on horseback, his head crowned by the telltale Smokey the Bear hat, patiently tracking through the rugged desert.
Increasingly, the effort to stop illegal immigration--which officials often refer to as a "war"--is taking on the physical trappings of a high-technology battle. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, U.S. immigration authorities seeking to impede the flow of illegal aliens are employing a formidable array of sensors, night-vision scopes, aircraft and other devices more familiar to a war zone. In fact, much of the equipment was designed for military use in Vietnam.
U.S. officials heartily endorse the high-tech approach, which they say saves manpower. The equipment buildup comes at a time when the Border Patrol is experiencing its largest personnel increase in history, when record numbers of aliens are believed to be entering the United States, and when some observers are openly calling for U.S. military units to be placed along the border.
"Technology greatly increases the effectiveness of our people," said Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, parent body of the Border Patrol.
"It just makes us one heck of a lot more efficient," said Marshall Mehlos, assistant chief patrol agent in San Diego.
Others are not so happy. Herman Baca, chairman of the Committee on Chicano Rights in San Diego, said the "militarization" of the border has led to greater harassment of illegal aliens by the Border Patrol. He noted, for instance, that at least one alien has been killed in San Diego this year and others injured after being run over by some of the patrol's vehicles. The Border Patrol says the incidents were accidents.
"It's part of the Rambo mentality . . . that every problem that confronts this country can be solved through law enforcement or military action," Baca said. "It parallels Vietnam. Our government policy-makers are fighting a war that they don't understand. . . . And you know who won in Vietnam."
Baca and others say the effort is doomed to failure: Without alleviating the Third World social ills that force people to come to the United States seeking work, they say, the tide of illegal immigration will continue unabated.
Federal officials acknowledge that technology and manpower alone will never stop illegal immigration through Mexico.
"As long as you have economic disparities and the ready availability of jobs in this country, people are going to try, regardless of what we put over there," said James Olech, a deputy chief Border Patrol agent in Washington who works on developing new equipment. "Unless you do something to deal with that disparity, you'll never be able to seal the border off."
Statistics show that there has been no letup in illegal immigration, despite the buildup. In San Diego, Border Patrol agents set a one-month record for the number of apprehensions of illegal aliens in March. Along the entire border, apprehensions were up 43% in the first four months of fiscal 1986, compared to the record pace of 1985. In February, INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson stated that the nation was experiencing "the greatest surge of people in history across our Southern border."
The undocumented immigrants are being met by what is undeniably the largest and best-equipped staff in Border Patrol history.
In the last 18 months, officials say, the INS has added 647 agents along the U.S.-Mexico border, an increase of 33%; the total force stands at more than 2,600. In San Diego County, the busiest crossing point along the border, 625 Border Patrol agents staff the 66 miles of border.
$5.5 Million in New Gear
The officers have a lot of impressive--and expensive--new equipment to work with. Nationwide in the last 18 months, the INS said, the agency has ordered $5.5 million in new gear:
- 10 infrared night-vision scopes, valued at $60,000 each. The images on the scopes are formed by body heat, not light.
- Three low-level television systems, $250,000 each.
- Four aircraft-mounted infrared scopes, $120,000 each.
- 221 infrared night-vision pocket scopes, $2,500 each.
- 16 night-vision goggles, $6,000 each.
- 200 vehicles, $15,000 each.
Such devices as the night-vision scopes were initially developed by the military; former Army helicopters are also among those in use along the border. The Border Patrol maintains a research department in Washington that examines military and other equipment for possible use by the Border Patrol. Before the recent buildup, agents regularly grumbled about the quality of some of the "hand-me-down" equipment.
"We used to get a lot of Army surplus stuff that they wore out in Vietnam," one border agent said.
The INS has 12 helicopters in service along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, all equipped with high-power lights to facilitate searches; two more choppers are on order. In addition, agents have access to 32 fixed-wing aircraft. In San Diego, the Border Patrol maintains three helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft.
New Generation of Gadgets
Olech, the Border Patrol official in Washington, said a whole new generation of high-tech gadgets may be in use along the border in coming years. Some examples:
- An advanced infrared scope that would emerge, periscope-style, out of a Border Patrol vehicle and be hoisted 30 feet in the air atop a hydraulically operated pole. The devices, the first of which will be shipped to border posts in coming months, are operated by officers seated comfortably in the vehicle cabins, observing the images on black-and-white television screens.
- Drone aircraft, which are remote-controlled devices equipped with night-vision equipment that could be dispatched to remote areas to determine whether patrol personnel were needed. The technology is available, but the cost is still prohibitive.
- So-called "people sensors," still under development, that would be placed on suspected alien routes. They would have the ability to differentiate between reflective light generated by human beings and light caused by other sources, thus eliminating the false alarms that plague current sensor systems. Deployment is five or 10 years away.
Nonetheless, officials caution that the technology is only a tool; often, devices malfunction and must be replaced by manual skills. Officials acknowledge that computerization of Border Patrol records is fairly embryonic when contrasted to other federal agencies.
"We're very careful with technology because you can become a slave to it," said Larry Richardson, chief patrol agent in El Paso. "You got to shop around and make it a workable tool, as opposed to a problem for you."
Traditional Tracking Skills
Despite the current emphasis on high technology, Border Patrol officials are quick to boast of their traditional tracking skills, which are particularly useful in isolated areas. And horseback patrols are still in use from California to Texas.
"Some of these old hands, they swear they can track an (alien) across a plate of glass and never lose him," said R. M. Worsham, a supervisory patrol agent in El Paso.
But Worsham, asked about the familiar image of a Border Patrol officer on horseback, added: "What's the point of feeding some hay burner and paying someone to play cowboy eight hours a day, when you give me a guy in a Ford LTD and he'll catch five times as many?"
On a recent visit to Border Patrol installations in San Ysidro, the importance placed on high-technology devices was evident.
Next to the Border Patrol office downtown, operators at computer consoles monitored the hundreds of sensors that have been placed at known and suspected paths used by aliens. The sensors are activated variously by movement, heat or metal. Some are designed to detect aliens on foot, while others are aimed at vehicles that attempt to drive through the border.
When a "hit" is recorded on a sensor, the operators, using radios, can dispatch Border Patrol units to the scene. By following a sequence of sensor hits, it is possible to monitor the progress of aliens.
The sensors, however, are not foolproof. Sometimes they are activated by animals; sometimes they simply malfunction.
As dusk approached, aliens massed along the border in Tijuana, waiting for nightfall to attempt entry into the United States. Meantime, agents began to deploy the large, infrared scopes that are mounted on the back of trucks. Six of the scopes are in use here.
'Probably the Guide'
"That guy in front, he's probably the guide," said Agent Hernan Chirinos, who was positioned on a hilltop, as he directed a visitor's gaze toward a scope viewer that revealed a group of aliens. "It's not unusual to see groups of 30 or 40 here."
Soon, the rumble of a helicopter was heard overhead. The chopper dipped into a nearby canyon, its high-power searchlights shattering the darkness.
From his position on the hilltop, Chirinos, dressed in camouflaged fatigues and a woolen watch cap, directed other units toward an alien who was spotted in a field. The alien was quickly discovered; he was arrested by helmeted agents driving off-road vehicles--another recent innovation.
"You can go anywhere with these things," said agent Larry Ford, who was driving a three-wheeler. "They're real handy."
Within minutes, a four-wheel drive Border Patrol van drove up and took Torres away.
A few miles to the east, Agent Demors was parked at the end of a dirt road, looking through his scope. On the screen, a man on horseback was rounding up a group of people. He was a Border Patrol officer, still doing his job the way it used to be done.