As a bemused crowd of would-be illegal immigrants looked on from a makeshift hilltop refreshment stand, Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan on Tuesday stepped into a confrontational arena that sums up his often confrontational campaign: the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I am calling attention to a national disgrace," Buchanan told reporters, his suit and shoes dusty from a Border Patrol tour of the rugged terrain. "The failure of the national government of the United States to protect the borders of the United States from an illegal invasion that involves at least a million aliens a year. As a consequence of that, we have social problems and economic problems. And drug problems."
Saying that up to 1,000 illegal immigrants were among those arrested during the Los Angeles riots, Buchanan repeated his previous calls to fortify key sections of the border with ditches and concrete-buttressed fences and to deploy U.S. military forces there if necessary.
Buchanan also advocated doubling the size of the Border Patrol to 6,600 agents, staffing immigration checkpoints on Interstates 5 and 15 24 hours a day and charging a $2 toll on legal crossings to pay for tougher enforcement.
"I don't believe in being brutal on anyone," he said. "But I do think that any country that wants to call itself a nation has got to defend its borders."
Illegal immigration lies at the heart of Buchanan's vision of what is wrong with America; the issue is perhaps the strongest attention-getter in Southern California for his fading GOP challenge.
Buchanan's first visit to the San Diego-Tijuana border made for strange media theater. The candidate arrived by four-wheel-drive vehicle to a hot, dusty ridge overlooking Smuggler's Canyon, a prime crossing area, where a new corrugated steel barrier meets an old, battered chain-link fence. Buchanan supporters in suits and ties reached across the international line to buy soft drinks at a makeshift refreshment stand.
About 25 Mexican migrants, most of whom had heard only vaguely of Buchanan, chatted with security agents and tried to make sense of the pin-striped visitor.
"He's a presidential candidate?" asked a man named Guillermo. "Does he speak Spanish? Ask him if he can pull the migra out of here for 24 hours, then he can do whatever he wants. Ask him if he can give me a ride to Los Angeles."
Filoberto, a wiry 23-year-old from Mexicali, scoffed when informed that Buchanan advocates sealing the border and giving the Border Patrol more agents and equipment.
"They have all kinds of technology," said Filoberto, who was waiting to make his fourth attempt at crossing in a week. "But we are smarter; people are smarter than machines. We are still going to cross. In fact, as soon as all of you people get out of here, we are going to go for it."
To the discomfort of Buchanan aides, neo-Nazi Tom Metzger showed up with a handful of raucous supporters.
Metzger's group hovered at the edges of the press conference, yelling insults about illegal immigrants, Republicans and Democrats.
Metzger, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance, was recently convicted of unlawful assembly in a Los Angeles cross-burning. He was sentenced to six months in jail but released after 46 days because of his wife's illness and subsequent death. He said he wanted to talk to Buchanan about getting "action" to control the border.
But Buchanan rejected Metzger, saying that if Metzger contributed money to his campaign it would be returned. "I don't have anything to do with him," he said.
Buchanan said he thinks that he can influence President Bush's policy--despite the fact that Bush has the GOP nomination locked up. "I think we are going to get George Bush to do something about this before that election, or at least speak to this," he said. "He'd better do it, or he's going to have problems."