Reno Gets a Firsthand Look at Border Woes


After a 90-minute tour of the U.S.-Mexico border at the nation’s busiest corridor for illegal immigration, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said “much needs to be done” to bolster law enforcement at the gateway to California.

Joined by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, California Democrats who are pushing their own proposals to curb immigration, Reno remained silent and grim-faced as she watched a marijuana bust. Meanwhile, off to the side, border agents detained a young woman--a would-be illegal immigrant from Chile, who had tried to slip into California.

It was the first appearance at the San Ysidro port of entry border by any high-ranking Clinton Administration official, and it came at a time when each day seems to bring yet another proposal for dealing with illegal immigration.


Although Boxer took the opportunity to assail Gov. Pete Wilson’s recent series of far-reaching proposals, Reno said at a news conference: “I’m not pointing my finger at anybody. There is much that needs to be done.

“Some have said we need additional people. Some have said we need additional equipment. Some have said we need additional training of our personnel along the border,” Reno said. “I have reason to believe that we need a lot and it’s time to get started on it.”

At the outset of the tour, Reno was shown more than 200 fake ID cards typical of those used by illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Immigration and Naturalization agents told her they seize up to 100 to 200 phony documents every Friday and Saturday night.

The three officials were escorted by Border Patrol Field Agent William Pink to a levee overlooking the Tijuana River, where Reno peered through an infrared night vision video camera that is used to detect movement by people along the border.

Reno appeared to be impressed when Pink told her that he averaged 20 arrests an hour there. The trio were driven down a dusty road to a hilly area about 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean, where they watched 40 to 50 people congregating along the border. A Border Patrol helicopter hovered overhead.

As Reno watched a scene that included several Border Patrol vehicles, she asked Pink how many were without radios. He indicated that several did not have radios, and Reno said she would find funding for the new equipment.


Boxer used the opportunity to reiterate her call for National Guard troops to back up the Border Patrol, to which Pink quickly replied that if he had the added manpower at his disposal he would use them for clerical duties.

Boxer said of the appearance by Reno: “We’re looking at a problem here. The Border Patrol needs more help. We need to greatly enhance their capabilities here.”

Feinstein renewed her call for a $1 fee charged to all vehicles passing into the United States from Mexico. She said the additional funds could be used for 1,000 new border-related personnel, including Border Patrol agents and INS investigators.

Feinstein said the 1,000 new INS personnel would be in addition to 600 new Border Patrol officers whose salaries have already been funded through a recent measure passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The most controversial proposal of late came from Wilson, who called on Mexico to deploy troops and police to curtail the thousands of illegal immigrants who gather along the canyons and riverbanks that Reno, Feinstein and Boxer visited Tuesday night.

Wilson urged President Clinton to use the North American Free Trade Agreement, strongly favored by Mexican leaders, as leverage to get help from Mexico on immigration.


But in a series of sweeping proposals, Wilson’s most radical steps would deny citizenship to children born on U.S. soil to illegal residents, and cut off health and education benefits to those residents.

Except in emergencies, state and federal assistance would go only to those immigrants who could prove that they were in the state legally by presenting a tamper-proof identification card similar to a California driver’s license.

Feinstein said she had sent a letter Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari on Tuesday asking for his help in curbing illegal immigration, which she argued was contributing to the ongoing ills of the California economy.

Asked if illegal immigration was being used as a scapegoat for the state’s recession, Feinstein quoted a series of new statistics that she got from Wilson’s office and the state Department of Finance:

Illegal immigrants are costing state and local governments in California $2.4 billion a year, with $1.1 billion going to kindergarten-through-12th grade education, $734 million to emergency medical services, $82 million to prenatal care and $490 million to incarceration.

“And that’s excluding arrest, prosecution and court costs,” she said.

She said the most recent figures place the state’s illegal population at 2.83 million, which is 52% of the illegal immigrants living in the country. She said the number of illegal immigrants in Los Angeles recently reached 1 million.


Earlier Tuesday, during an appearance in Santa Barbara at the annual conference of the U.S. 9th Judicial Circuit, Reno told several hundred federal judges and lawyers that 26% of all federal prisoners are illegal aliens.

One of the issues she is examining, she said, is the question of whether those people should be kept in federal prison or deported to their homelands.

After her border tour, Reno identified the hot-button topic of illegal immigration as “one of the most difficult issues facing America.”

“We have made proposals. We’re going to make additional proposals,” Reno said. “What I want to do is to see firsthand, to make the best judgment I can--without pointing fingers at anybody.”

Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.