As a long-time officer of the U.S. Border Patrol, Dale W. Cozart has come to know the semitropical lowlands of the Rio Grande Valley, the rugged high country of West Texas and the barren desert of the Arizona border region.
Now, after 21 years on the border, Cozart faces his toughest challenge: Next month, he will take over as chief U.S. Border Patrol agent in San Diego--the busiest, most violent and often most controversial sector along the 2,000-mile border.
Adding to the pressure will be the fact that he is arriving at a time of great flux and uncertainty, attributable to the passage of sweeping new immigration legislation.
"Implementing that law is certainly going to be one of our greatest challenges," Cozart said this week in a telephone interview from Yuma, Ariz., his current post. "Certainly, I think it's going to be difficult, but I don't think it's going to be insurmountable."
Others disagree. Many critics assert that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service--the historically under-funded parent agency of the Border Patrol--is ill-equipped to implement the new law, particularly the two key provisions granting legal status to some illegal aliens and imposing sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.
"In the INS you've got an under-prepared, under-funded agency that we don't think is capable of correctly administering this," said Charles Kamasaki, director of policy analysis for the National Council of La Raza, a rights group based in Washington.
The council and other organizations will be watching closely for potential INS miscues. And the actions of Cozart, as Border Patrol chief in the nation's busiest crossing area, will probably be viewed under a microscope in coming months, as provisions of the law begin to take hold. More than anything, it is the image of a so-called "invasion" of illegal aliens through Mexico that prodded Congress into passing immigration reform legislation.
Cozart, 46, a native Texan, in his 21 years with the Border Patrol has manned posts in Brownsville, El Paso and Yuma and has spent three years as an instructor in Texas.
He replaces Alan Eliason, who is going to El Paso to participate in Operation Alliance, an anti-drug smuggling effort. Cozart said that he has no immediate plans for sweeping changes in San Diego.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the new law, Cozart, like other INS officials, is optimistic about the new law. The agency strongly supported the legislation, particularly the new sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens, as crucial in stemming the flow of illegal immigration.
"I'm hopeful that in five years, we will have regained control of our borders," Cozart said.
The bill also authorizes a 50% increase in Border Patrol personnel, although it is questionable whether federal lawmakers will ever appropriate the funds for such a buildup.
Nowhere is the chaos of the U.S.-Mexico border region more evident than in San Diego County, where prosperous and pleasant Southern California ends abruptly at the boundary of Tijuana, a teeming Mexican city of more than a million.
Each evening, hundreds of people mass in the rugged border canyons, seeking to slip into the United States under cover of night. Shootings and other acts of violence are fairly commonplace in the no man's land along the border.
The 66 miles of international boundary covered by the Border Patrol sector here accounted for more than a third of the record 1.7 million apprehensions of illegal aliens along the border in the last fiscal year. Although the great majority of those arrested were Mexicans, Border Patrol officials last year arrested foreign nationals from more than 70 nations, all attempting to enter the United States clandestinely through the porous border.
Attempting to hold back the tide in San Diego is a force of more than 900 Border Patrol personnel and an array of aircraft, ground vehicles, horse patrols and high-technology gadgets such as night-vision scopes and electronic sensors.
"It's an extremely large enforcement operation," Cozart acknowledged.
It is also an operation that has frequently been accused of abusing Latinos. Many remain skeptical that the Border Patrol will ever cease rights abuses or adequately inform illegal aliens of their potential eligibility for amnesty.
"They're going to have to convince people like me that they're going to implement the law fairly," said Roberto L. Martinez, an immigrants rights activist in San Diego.
Cozart insisted that that will not be a problem. As for allegations of rights abuses, Cozart, like other INS officials, said such reports are exaggerated.
"Hopefully, these things can be held to a minimum," he said. "I'm sworn to uphold the law of the land."