COLUMN ONE : The Hopes, Fears and Struggles : A one-day portrait of illegal immigration; Students gaze in amazement at the ocean. A traffic stop may lead to deportation. A homeowner wants a squalid labor camp razed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An hour before dawn, Tony Mendez squats in a dank Tijuana culvert, waiting for his chance to slip past a U.S. Border Patrol sentry.

Snared by immigration agents in an Ontario doughnut shop, Mendez has no doubt that he eventually will return to his job washing catering trucks. At the moment, he is more concerned about making it back in time for his 15-year-old cousin's gala coming-out party.

More than a hundred miles from the line that she also crossed illegally, Pacoima vendor Alicia Martin loads homemade tamales into a shopping cart, preparing for another morning of street peddling sure to irritate a grocer who complains that her sales steal from his business.

Later that morning, at a Terminal Island detention facility, John Chen tells a judge he should be granted asylum because he ran afoul of Chinese population control authorities when his vasectomy failed.

That afternoon, Kevin McNamara walks through a migrant camp he is trying to have razed, shaking his head in disbelief that such squalor can exist so close to his affluent northern San Diego home.

These disparate episodes are linked by a single thread--the vast illegal migration to Southern California that has sent tremors across the social and political landscape.

On a single day--Nov. 19--from the early hours until almost midnight, from Ventura County to the Mexican border, more than 30 Times reporters and photographers sought to chronicle the ways these newcomers are shaping the region.

They found impoverished Mexican laborers losing hope in the San Fernando Valley and they found the daughter of a former Romanian cabinet minister living comfortably in Orange County.

They found young men hawking phony green cards in neighborhoods so crime-ridden that police drive by without blinking. They found undocumented children who believe they are entitled to a free education--if only because many of their relatives have been paying taxes for years.

They found an Irish house painter so fearful of deportation he rarely drives, and when he does, never exceeds 55 m.p.h. They found an immigration agent bantering affably with those waiting to cross illegally. And they found an attorney, on his 6,841st deportation case, joking about how the names of his clients have changed over time.

The snapshot is of a Friday--a workday, six days before Thanksgiving, a slow time at the border because there are few crops to be picked in the north during the holiday months.

Some of the stories that emerged are familiar, others surprising. Taken together, they serve as reminders that illegal immigration is inextricably woven into the fabric of Southern California--a dynamic, confounding, undeniable fact of daily life.

5 A.M.: So Many Wonderful Things

The clock-radio lurches on in the darkness, filling Tomas Gonzalez's one-room shack with the strains of a Mexican ballad.

This has been his wake-up call since 1990, when he left his wife and two boys in the state of Michoacan for the fertile terrain of Ventura County. He had hoped to send for them six months later, his wallet made thick by wages many times higher than what he earned in Mexico.

"I had a vision," says the 28-year-old stoop laborer, "a dream of what this country would be."

But that was three years ago. He pulls on a grimy pair of trousers, mixes a cup of instant coffee and fires up a cigarette. For $200 a month, he has the concrete floor hut to himself. The paint is peeling, the broken windows are covered with plywood and he shares a nearby toilet with half a dozen other farm workers.

He is out of the hovel before sunrise, bracing against the cold as he shuffles a few blocks to a parking lot filling with his competitors--migrant workers, many of them illegal, whose muscle forms the backbone of California's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.

The season for Oxnard's big cash crop--strawberries--is still a few months off, so there is little work these days, mostly celery and weeding. To win a trip to the fields, Gonzalez joins one of the knots of men gathered along the road, hoping that the employers who slowly cruise past in pickups will see something in him.

Gonzalez is one of an estimated 980,000 Latin Americans illegally in the state, a number that represents about 75% of all undocumented immigrants here. If he is asked for papers, he will pull out a phony green card that set him back $65. On this morning, no one asks because there is no work. By sunrise, not a single pickup has stopped.

Later that afternoon, other farm workers will return triumphantly to the barrio, forming long lines at check-cashing stores and packing the neighborhood cantinas. But Gonzalez, who has worked only once this week, lies on his bed, studying the most recent letter from his wife.

"We hope to join you soon," he says, reading aloud. "We've heard so many wonderful things about America."

The postmark is already a year old.

6:30 A.M.: Like a Paradise

Elegant in black leather pants and white cashmere sweater, Susan Lee picks through the blossoms at the Southern California Flower Mart, settling on an assortment of purple orchids, rust-colored chrysanthemums, stargazer lilies and asparagus ferns.

Lately, business has been slow at her Los Angeles floral shop. But after earning a devoted following in her native South Korea, where she taught flower arrangement for 20 years and exhibited at some of Seoul's finest hotels, she refuses to cut corners.

After delivering a $70 centerpiece to a ground-breaking ceremony for a Koreatown elementary school, she returns to her meticulously decorated shop and begins removing thorns from a bouquet of roses. "People who buy roses should not have to worry about hurting their fingers," says Lee, who is in her 40s.

When a Korean-owned photo studio orders an arrangement of silk roses, she has them shipped in from Seoul because she cannot find the same quality here. When an acquaintance orders a $50 plant for the opening of a Koreatown office, Lee spends nearly an hour pruning it, wiping the leaves and writing a greeting in calligraphy.

Arriving in Los Angeles three years ago on a visitors visa that has expired, Lee is one of the 142,000 Asians estimated to be living illegally in California, where proof of residency is not required to open a business. She left South Korea a decade after her divorce, she says, frustrated by the confines of a Confucian-steeped society where "everybody minds everybody's business."

Before choosing where to rebuild her life, she took an extended vacation through Europe, Asia, Canada and, finally, the United States. After deciding to stay, she rented an apartment, spent $10,000 furnishing it and had her collection of Korean pottery and antique chests shipped over.

Although she says she has struggled financially, aesthetically there is no better place to be.

"For a flower arrangement teacher," she says, "California was like a paradise."

7:30 A.M.: More Chocolate and Cinnamon

As the sun begins to cast a yellow glow across the San Fernando Valley, the battle for Pacoima's hearts and stomachs heats up at Laurel Canyon and Van Nuys boulevards.

Among the first to arrive are Lorenzo Ramos, 36, and his companion, Alicia Martin, 40, both of whom illegally crossed the border from Mexico three years ago. They have been up since 1 a.m., spreading chicken and pork on 100 dollops of thick dough, wrapping them in cornhusks, then steaming them in large pots. A few hours later, they brew the atole-- thick, semisweet hot chocolate made from condensed milk.

By 7 a.m., they seem to be feeding the entire intersection, serving cars lined up at the curb, like the drive-up window at McDonald's. "Give me one of each," calls a man in a blue Mazda as Martin wraps the tamales in foil, then opens the large cooler of atole, its redolent steam mixing with the smells of stewing meat and car exhaust.

This is not how they would choose to earn a living. But the small restaurant they rented in South-Central Los Angeles burned during last year's riots.

"We are not going to be a weight on the government," Ramos says. "We don't ask for help."

They are gone by 8 a.m., with about $120, most of it in $1 bills, stuffed in their pockets. Marcos Cota, toting 40 tamales of his own, has been waiting for them to leave. "When they are here, the cars line up," he concedes, "but none will buy from me."

Ladling a cup of his own atole, he adds: "It's better than theirs. I use more chocolate and I add cinnamon."

This is also not the way Cota, 28, had planned to earn a living. After crossing illegally from Mexico about a year ago, he found work at a sheet-metal factory. But when his boss told him to remove his protective gloves because they were staining the metal, he cut his thumb on a sharp edge. During the week that the 10 stitches were healing, he was fired.

When a catering truck pulls up at 9:45 a.m., Cota announces that he is going back to his native state of Sinaloa. "Back in Mexico, I'll sell tacos," he says. "They'll let you do that."

The owner of the nearby La Placita Market complains that they all steal his business. "A day in the life of illegals? That is the dumbest thing I've heard," says Henry Rose, 61, a naturalized citizen from Costa Rica, who has owned the grocery for 35 years. "Why not do a day in the life of a crack dealer?"

9 A.M.: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus

Antonio Bueno, a bald, rumpled 59-year-old attorney, waits for the judge to arrive in Courtroom 1 of the Immigration and Naturalization Service Processing Center on Terminal Island, a three-story building surrounded by fences and razor wire.

Within the complex, 494 men and 36 women are being held, most arrested at Los Angeles International Airport entering the country with fraudulent papers.

Some detainees have been transferred to the facility after doing time in Los Angeles County Jail. They include Little Wizard, an 18-year-old suspected gang member recently convicted of carrying a concealed screwdriver, who will be deported this day to Honduras.

"Fifteen years ago, I'd say one out of every 15 guys I handled was named Jesus," Bueno says. "Everywhere you looked, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Now I'm down here every day and I almost never see a 'Jesus.' Now they're named Mohammed. Now there's 10 Mohammeds for every Jesus. So you see, the name of the leader of one religion is fading out, and being replaced by the name of the leader of another religion. You see what I mean?"

As it turns out, the 6,841st deportation case of Bueno's 34-year legal career involves a 25-year-old Bangladesh native named Mohammed Naser. He has been held since Sept. 16, when he flew into LAX with a passport in the name of Abu Taher.

It was a dead giveaway. "I see a lot of people try to come in under that name, Abu Taher," says Bueno, who is being paid $1,500 by Naser's friends in Long Beach. "I don't know why they pick that name, but they do. Somebody's mass-producing papers under that name over there."

Speaking through a Bengali interpreter, Naser says he belonged to an opposition political party, which led to repeated arrests by government agents who beat him with sticks and doused him with hot water.

"There was no security for my life," he tells the judge. "I didn't want to die. I thought the fittest place in the world for me was America. That's why I come here."

U.S. Immigration Judge Rose Collantes Peters grants the request for asylum. "Good luck," she tells Naser.

The next case takes a more unusual tack. Standing in a government-issue orange jumpsuit, John Chen, a 31-year-old native of China, tells the judge he was forced to flee a repressive regime because his vasectomy did not work.

When his wife accidentally became pregnant again--exceeding the government-mandated limit of one child per family--authorities insisted that she have an abortion. The Chens refused. When the baby was born, authorities demanded that they pay a fine. When the Chens again refused, police razed their home.

"I didn't feel it was fair to pay that fine," says Chen, who arrived at LAX with a phony passport that cost him $3,500 in Bolivia. "I had been sterilized already."

Although most asylum requests never make it this far through the courts--and the majority of those that do are denied--this turns out to be a good day for refugees. After the judge grants the application, a beaming Chen shakes hands with his lawyer, Helen Sklar, then shakes hands with an INS attorney, who has just dismissed his tale as "incredible."

In his elation, Chen tries to shake hands with the judge, but a bailiff stops him.

10 A.M.: The Best Interests of This Country

As the yellow school bus lumbers toward the ocean, carrying 23 teen-agers from the overcrowded classrooms of Huntington Park to the spacious comfort of Palisades High, the students' sleepy-faced silence turns to glee.

Eastbound on the Santa Monica Freeway, near the exit to Century City, 16-year-old Janeth gasps. "Look! We're in Hollywood!" she says, pointing to the large white letters on the distant hillside.

"Weeeeeeee-eeeeeee," exclaims another girl when they pass through the tunnel at the end of the freeway.

"It's like magic!" says Ismael, 16, gazing at the sandy expanse across Pacific Coast Highway. "First you are in the city and then you are at the beach."

One boy wonders aloud if they will see an episode of the TV series "Baywatch" being filmed. Instead, nature puts on a show: a pair of dolphins gracefully dipping up and down.

"Dawl-feens? That's English, right?" asks Ismael, who is toting a 10-ounce bottle of Tapatio hot sauce in his backpack to douse his potato chips at lunch.

These students--most of them recently arrived illegal immigrants--are among the 16,000 public schoolchildren in Los Angeles who are bused to far-flung suburban campuses, largely because the newcomers have overwhelmed their neighborhood schools. Federal law requires that schools educate children even if they are here illegally.

"Maybe someone in this bus is going to be president of a country someday. Wouldn't it be in the best interest of this country if they had a good American education?" asks Monika, 16, who arrived four months ago from Guadalajara, where she was an honors student.

"All my brothers have income tax taken out of their paychecks," said 16-year-old Armando, who like Monika is spending his fall vacation in the federally subsidized English class for immigrant students. "This is not free for me--my family supports the American government."

Clutching green folders titled "A New Life in Los Angeles," they arrive in Pacific Palisades acting more like guests visiting a richly appointed house than teen-agers cruising through campus. They eat breakfast alone, after the Palisades students. Following the lead of their teacher, Maria Russell, they pick up litter as they walk to and from class.

In preparation for a nature walk through Temescal Canyon, they spend the morning learning a mouthful of English words that might come in handy: conservation, environment, poison ivy. Then they set off on foot for the hiking trails, hitting Sunset Boulevard in their baggy pants and worn T-shirts just as a sleek, gray Acura slows down beside them.

"Who do you work for?" shouts the scowling young driver, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. "The Department of Streets?"

As he speeds off, the teen-agers exchange bewildered looks.

"I think that was an insult," their teacher says.

11 A.M.: A Very American Thing to Do

Rucsandra Babe dashes out the door of her three-bedroom house in a gray sweat shirt, shorts and cap, late for another new ritual in her adopted land.

Accompanied by Reggie, her Jack Russell terrier, Babe jogs down the tree-lined streets of north Santa Ana--a "very American thing to do," says the 21-year-old Romanian immigrant, greeting neighbors as she huffs around the block.

No time for breakfast. She showers quickly and slips on black jeans and a white shirt. Then she is behind the wheel of her Mercedes, scanning the radio, heading to her secretarial job at her boyfriend's small computer firm in Irvine.

"If it were not because of him, I would not be happy," says Babe, among the few illegal immigrants interviewed for this story who allowed her real name to be used. "My life would be terrible. My self-evaluation would go totally down, I think."

One of the estimated 48,000 illegal European immigrants in California, Babe plans to marry soon and obtain legal papers. Her father was the Romanian finance minister until he was removed from office in 1987, two years before the revolt against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. After studying economics at the University of Romania, she came to Orange County last year on a now-expired tourist visa.

Lisa Qu's road to suburbia has been slightly rockier. The immaculate one-bedroom apartment she shares in Temple City with her husband and daughter is filled with signs of middle-class life: a VCR, tins of Pringles and the 10-year-old's spread of Disney miniatures.

Lisa's husband, Michael, a successful representative of a Chinese latex glove exporter, arrived on a temporary business visa in 1989 and defected 14 months later. He received his green card in July, qualifying under a federal act designed for those fleeing repression after the Tian An Men Square killings.

But because she joined him after April, 1990, Lisa Qu did not immediately qualify. When her husband squandered their savings on gambling and nightclub hostesses, she went to work illegally as a dishwasher and waitress at a Chinese restaurant.

"My wife had a very bright future in China," Michael Qu said of 38-year-old Lisa, the daughter of a high-ranking army official. "She got her M.D., worked in a Navy hospital as an eye specialist. She never suffered. She never had to wash dishes in her life."

11:30 A.M.: Can't Afford to Go Anywhere Else

Until she became pregnant last summer, Gloria Ramirez had not seen a doctor in the four years since leaving Guatemala.

It was to be her first child, but Ramirez miscarried in August. Now suffering from headaches and abdominal cramps, she waits inside the Clinica Msgr. Oscar Romero, a nonprofit community health center in the heavily Central American district of Pico-Union.

"So far, it hasn't been too hard to get medical care," says Ramirez, 21, who is applying for legal residency. "I've never really been asked about having papers, but I see the news and I know it'll be harder."

On Fridays, the Romero center converts into a free women's clinic, Para Las Mujeres, operated by the Venice-based Family Planning Center, which receives a combination of public and private funds. Although the clinic treats women regardless of immigration status, staff members ask patients whether they are legal residents. On any given Friday, 60% are not.

"I've been looking for work, maybe taking care of children or cleaning houses, but I haven't been able to find anything," says Ramirez, who wears her long black hair in a neat ponytail. "At least I get what I can here. Right now I can't afford to go anywhere else."

In the waiting room, a Spanish-language video about AIDS flickers on the TV screen. When a gay man talks about his relationship with another man, the patients giggle. Above the TV set looms a painting of Romero, the slain Salvadoran archbishop, his arms outstretched.

After her name is called, Ramirez is led to an interview room, where she is questioned about her education and sexual history.

Seven hours after she arrived, Ramirez walks out with a pink container of birth control pills.

12:30 P.M.: Wasting an Education

At lunchtime, Daniel Afework opens the door to an Ethiopian restaurant on the Westside, seeking a taste of home.

He greets half a dozen countrymen who meet there regularly to drink beer and share the spicy East African cuisine, eaten by hand with flat, spongy injera bread. It is a custom left over from the old days, when men traditionally gathered to talk politics and share their thoughts on life.

But the 36-year-old Afework brings little joy to the table. A high school history teacher in Ethiopia before fleeing the communist takeover, he arrived four years ago on a tourist visa that has expired. Now he only can find work as a shuttle bus driver at LAX. He laments that history is passing him by.

"It's degrading," he says, grabbing a soft drink from the restaurant refrigerator. "I feel like I'm wasting my education."

Cesar Rodriguez, admiring the work of the Impressionists during a stroll through the European wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, does not want to end up like Afework.

Originally from Mazatlan, Rodriguez illegally crossed the border with his family five years ago. Now 18, he is fluent in English. At Garfield High School on the Eastside, he passed advanced-placement tests in calculus, Spanish, American history and European history. He graduated near the top of his class of more than 900.

As an illegal immigrant, however, Rodriguez does not qualify for any financial aid programs. Without documents, he also cannot afford the steep out-of-state tuitions at all University of California schools and community colleges.

"If a student is good, it seems reasonable to me that there would be some kind of scholarships out there," says Rodriguez, whose parents are unemployed. "I feel I have something to contribute."

With a $525 grant from his high school, he was able to sign up for a few classes at Cal State L.A., which charges in-state fees to undocumented students, although a pending lawsuit could change that.

Most of the week, he stays at home helping his disabled mother, or explores his newfound love for classical music and art.

"The farther you stand away, the better you can see it," says Rodriguez, pointing out a painting by Claude Monet that is clearer from a distance than up close. "Impressionism is all about light and where it falls."

2 P.M.: Just Raking Leaves

Ramon Vargas can't afford to be picky.

The only work-related document he owns is a slip of paper with the number 289, handed out at the city-sponsored raffle on Sherman Way that serves as North Hollywood's official day-labor hiring site.

Every now and then, a municipal employee gets on a megaphone and calls one of the numbers, each of which corresponds to a separate skill--carpenters, tile layers, English speakers. No immigration questions are asked.

But when a Ford Ranger brimming with landscaping equipment crawls into the lot, Vargas recognizes the flannel-clad driver and his expression sours.

"He doesn't pay well and he's on your back all day," says Vargas, 36, who worked as a truck driver in Acapulco before illegally crossing the border three years ago.

The landscaper approaches another laborer and gets right in his face.

"It's not hard work, I'm not gonna tell you a . . . lie," the man shouts, lacing his words with obscenities. "Do you want to work?"

"How much?" the laborer asks.

"Didn't they tell you? They didn't tell you? Five bucks an hour. It's not hard work. I got maybe 11, 12 houses, just raking . . . leaves. It's not . . . hard."

"You include lunch?"

"No," the landscaper says. "I don't even stop for . . . lunch."

The laborer walks away and the employer leaves without hiring anyone. "He's cheap," says Vargas, who was laid off seven months ago from a factory job.

Sitting on a concrete picnic bench, Vargas joins in a game of dominoes. For seven hours, only the crack of bony pieces striking tabletops breaks the monotony. Except for the open gate, the gravel lot has the desultory atmosphere of a prison yard.

There is a brief stir when Luis Escobedo, an outreach worker at the 3-year-old work site, gets on the megaphone. But it is not a job that he is announcing. Instead, he warns the men to stop using newspapers in the five portable toilets. There is a roll of toilet paper, he says, for everyone to share.

Later in the day, hope rises briefly when a red pickup truck with pool equipment pulls to the curb. But the driver heads straight for an adult bookstore. Vargas, soon to trudge back to his Burbank home without work, is so engrossed in the domino game he doesn't even notice.

3 P.M.: One Thing in Your Life

The boss picks up Eamon McCarthy on a quiet San Gabriel Valley street, a few blocks from his one-bedroom apartment.

It's a minor precaution, but one the 27-year-old Irish immigrant takes seriously. Even though the painting contractor that hires him knows he's here illegally, McCarthy would rather that no one know where he lives. Even though he has his own car, he also would rather not risk driving himself.

"I'm still looking over my shoulder, basically," says McCarthy, who came 2 1/2 years ago on a tourist visa that is now expired. "I just don't want to get booted out of the country."

The boss leaves him alone in a two-story rental unit near Downtown Los Angeles, where he gets $11 an hour to do a touch-up job. He is soon joined by Juan Rodriguez, who crossed illegally from Mexico four years ago and earns $4 less an hour.

"Go get the radio, Juan," McCarthy says. "He's getting underpaid. He's an expert wood-grainer. He is also a born-again. I'm not religious, but he's a churchgoer. He's the Holy Spirit of this firm."

Rodriguez brings a radio from his car and tunes it to Rush Limbaugh, known for his virulent attacks on illegal immigration. The irony is lost on both men, who ignore the cacophony and turn to tasks in separate rooms.

In their boss's absence, McCarthy negotiates many of the jobs, estimating the time it will take and what the work should entail. Rodriguez's limited English leaves him at McCarthy's behest. McCarthy's limited Spanish leaves long silences in between.

"We get on all right," says McCarthy, explaining that he and Rodriguez usually ask to work together. But he adds: "They've got an advantage over me because if they get booted out of here, they can just jump in the back of a car and be waiting in line for work next to me the following day."

Fear of deportation haunts McCarthy. A native of Belfast, he was arrested at 15 for making a "petrol bomb" during the Irish Republican Army hunger strike. Although he has stayed out of trouble since, he worries that his youthful indiscretion has jeopardized his chances for residency.

"To think that there is one thing that you did in your life that could ruin it all--that is the difference between happiness and sadness--is scary," McCarthy says.

4 P.M.: It's Almost Racism

Kevin McNamara was not looking to take on Rancho de los Diablos, the teeming squatter camp he is strolling through this afternoon.

He was not among the angry homeowners who descended on San Diego City Hall, demanding that the Third World jumble of shacks be immediately leveled. Neither was he among those who clamored for a massive public housing program to ease conditions in the shantytown.

But as a 44-year-old commercial real estate broker who just happened to be chairman of a planning board in neighboring Rancho Penasquitos, McNamara found himself at the center of a political firestorm over the largest, most established and most controversial of the migrant encampments dotting northern San Diego County.

"My God, it's a mess out here," says McNamara, who visits the camp regularly to see if it is expanding.

Wading down trash-strewn streets, a short distance from the million-dollar homes of Fairbanks Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe, he watches small children foraging in a garbage heap. A toddler drinks from the sharp lip of a discarded can of baby formula, while a group of young men stand nearby, chugging beer and laughing.

Portable toilets provided by the Catholic Church are overflowing. Every building material imaginable--including signs from old political races--has been used to erect the shaky and fire-prone dwellings. One shanty has a canvas awning: "Members Only," it reads.

As McNamara continues to walk, armed with only a high-school command of Spanish, a drug deal is openly consummated. A shack-to-shack vendor hawks Christmas cards. Two men with a cellular phone sit in a truck, cashing paychecks from local farmers and nurseries.

"It's hard to believe you're in San Diego," McNamara says.

Rancho de los Diablos--Devils' Ranch--is home to about 500 migrants, many of them here illegally. A few unoccupied shacks have been bulldozed by city crews. Police, always in two-officer teams, make periodic visits.

But for the most part, officials turn a blind eye. The Health Department does not inspect the makeshift restaurants or overused privies. No social workers inquire about children living in filth. No building inspectors order people out of homes that are dangerously substandard and pose a fire hazard in this area of dry, deep brush.

After looking for solutions, McNamara says he has come to the sad conclusion that there is neither the money nor political will to do much about the camp. He is urging that it be razed within a year.

"It's almost racism letting this happen," he says, steering his four-wheel-drive truck down the bumpy path back to a paved road. "We're allowing a group of people to live outside the rules that govern everybody else."

5 P.M.: Welcome to the United States

The ritualized anarchy of The Line, as INS agents call the boundary separating Mexico and the United States, accelerates as the sun goes down. Even then, the relationship between agents and border denizens remains largely agreeable, a surreal minuet that has consumed both sides for years.

When five migrants come walking along the U.S. side of the fence, a few yards from Tijuana's Colonia Libertad, Border Patrol Supervisor Alan Summers, a tall, placid Texan with a mustache and a drawl, takes it in stride.

"Get back to the other side, please, or I'm going to have to arrest you," the 11-year veteran says out the window of his patrol car in heavily accented but fluid Spanish. The migrants nod, as if to say that they will obey, but Summers does not stick around to enforce his order.

A bit later, he pulls up to a Mexican woman standing by the U.S. side of the fence.

"Are you going to cross tonight?" Summers asks.

"No, I'm a vendor," the woman says, amused. "Would you like a soda? Fresh water?"

Several youths from the Tijuana side appear atop the fence, waving at Summers to stop. An errant soccer ball has landed near his vehicle.

"Now this could be a trick," he chuckles, climbing out to throw the ball back over.

Over the years, Summers has interrupted a gang rape in the Tijuana riverbed, been assaulted for no apparent reason by a woman using her high-heeled shoes as weapons and been run over by a charging group of 100 illegal immigrants.

"Sometimes they'll wave at ya and sometimes they throw rocks at ya," Summers drawls. "It just depends."

When darkness falls on the Otay Mesa, even during the slow season, the action picks up. The silhouettes of border-crossers begin to intermittently break the glow of Tijuana's lights--a phenomenon agents call "skylining."

Spotting a group of migrants race into a small canyon, Border Patrol vehicles and horses explode from the shadows, converging on them across a stark landscape of brush and rock. Illuminated by searchlights, the immigrants quickly surrender to the agents, who lead 12 of them out of the canyon handcuffed together in plastic manacles.

"Buenas noches ," Summers says. "Welcome to the United States."

As the rumpled, weary prisoners line up to be frisked, they respond with varying degrees of enthusiasm: " Buenas noches ."

7 P.M.: I Make Everything Clean

Wielding a spray bottle of Pine Sol, Nena Salazar is attacking the dirt inside the late-night Huntington Park coin laundry, which she scours from floor to ceiling seven nights a week.

Dressed in carefully creased blue jeans, a blue silk shirt and a pair of white boots that lace up in the back, she moves so efficiently and with such grace that there's no need to roll up her sleeves or remove her gold ring and bracelet. She has never gotten bleach on them, she says, and she never wears rubber gloves to protect her hands.

"Maybe I shouldn't have worn these boots," concedes Salazar, who stands barely 5 feet tall in the half-inch heels. "They might get scuffed."

This is her second job of the day, which began at 6:30 a.m. with a bus ride to Montebello, where she cares for an elderly woman who is too ill to shop or clean for herself. The laundry pays good money, about $256 every two weeks, and every month she sends $100 to her 59-year-old mother in Mexico.

Before crossing the border illegally last year, she worked at a bakery in Jalisco from 7 a.m. to noon, then returned at 4 and worked till 9. She says she has never considered getting papers to work legally here. "Nobody does," she shrugs.

In Mexico, Salazar observes, washing is women's work. But of the 25 or so people at the laundry, at least half are men. Everyone there calls her senora, even though she is not married. At 23, she often thinks that she should be.

When her 18-year-old niece arrives, they work together, cleaning to the beat of a boombox. It takes four rewinds of Grupo Indio's "Me Haces Falta" to get the floor clean of all the scuffs and spilled globs of detergent. When Salazar is through, the linoleum sparkles.

"You know, it's good to work here," she says. "I do it well. I make everything clean."

10 P.M.: Jailbait

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Linda Roth, who usually wears a drab olive uniform when cruising in her patrol car, struts out to a Walnut Park intersection in a tight black miniskirt, spiky black pumps and flowing blond hair.

Under her slinky outfit, a microphone is hidden to capture her conversations with the immigrant men who pull to the curb and ask for sex. The conversations are rudimentary: "You better believe I'm charging, baby. Money. Dinero. "

Denise Nixon, another miniskirt-clad deputy waiting to take her turn on the corner, admires Roth's panache. "That's a fine mamacita, " she jokes.

The undercover sting is part of an ongoing crackdown on prostitution, narcotics and counterfeit documents in the heavily Latino section of South-Central Los Angeles patrolled by Firestone station sheriff's deputies. By the end of the night, Operation Jailbait has netted 51 suspected johns.

"Half of these guys, the only word they can say in English is f---," Nixon says.

Although law enforcement officers generally do not inquire about the residency of the people they arrest, there is little doubt that crime in the Firestone area has been altered by illegal immigration.

Last year, when Deputy Nelson H. Yamamoto was fatally wounded in a gun battle outside a converted garage in Walnut Park, authorities identified the suspect as an illegal Salvadoran immigrant wanted for two murders in his native country.

On Florence Avenue, young men hawk phony green cards, fake Social Security numbers and pirated calling card codes. The number of hit-and-run accidents has soared, deputies say, because a driver's license with a new identity can be bought for as little as $25. Vendors, most of them unlicensed, fill the streets every night, grilling meat under the light of bare bulbs.

Back in the faculty dining lounge of Walnut Park Elementary School, which has been turned into a temporary booking station for the prostitution sting, Deputy Aaron Drake takes great delight in seizing what seems to be a bogus ID from one of the suspected johns.

"Hey, this is a fake card, look at it, man," Drake shouts, waving a Social Security card that appears to have the marks of a manual typewriter. "Jesus Christ! Ask that dude on the end where he bought it at."

11:30 P.M.: We Have Babies Born There

As U.S. tourists and teen-age partyers stream through Tijuana's pedestrian turnstile toward the nightlife of Avenue Revolucion, a Border Patrol bus pulls up and dumps off a load of captured immigrants.

Ruben and Maria Fuentes seem lost and scared. Two days earlier, they were arrested along with Maria's sister, Dolores, in an immigration raid at a garment factory in Ontario. Anxious to return to the United States, they had hooked up this morning in Tijuana with a swaggering smuggler who led them to his hot-rod Camaro on the U.S. side.

"It was six cylinders, really fast," says Ruben, a slightly built man of 24 with a nervous grin.

But somewhere in north San Diego County, a Border Patrol sedan tried to pull them over. The smuggler's reaction was typical. His clients were ordered to bail out. In the ensuing foot chase, Dolores tumbled down an embankment, cutting open her head on a rock.

Now back in Tijuana, Ruben and Maria call the U.S. hospital where Dolores was taken. She will be all right, but the injury was serious enough to require more tests. Then they call a friend to ask about their children--a newborn and a 3-year-old, both U.S. citizens--who had been left with a baby-sitter when they went to work.

"We have babies who are born there," Ruben says. "What do we do?"

But there is really nothing to discuss. They wade slowly into the crowds of Tijuana, through the smoke billowing from taco stands, the swarm of taxi drivers hustling for fares, the barrage of music and neon.

As soon as they can, they will be back.

* Times Link: 808-8463

How has illegal immigration affected your life? Add your voice to those in this story. To record a brief comment, call TimesLink from the 213, 310, 714, 818 or 909 area codes and press * 8310. Please leave your comments by Monday night. Include your name and a daytime telephone number. A sample of the comments will be published on the Voices pages on Dec. 13.

* IN SEARCH OF A BETTER LIFE: "Pablo" is a living portrait of the hard-working illegal immigrant. VIEW

About This Story

Today's article chronicling the impact of illegal immigration in Southern California on one day is part of an occasional series, "The Great Divide: Immigration in the 1990s."

Many of the illegal immigrants interviewed by The Times asked that they not be identified because they feared deportation. As a result, many of the immigrants' names in today's story have been altered.

The Times reporters and correspondents contributing to this report were:

Sebastian Rotella at the Mexican border; Gebe Martinez and Greg Hernandez in Orange County; Tony Perry in San Diego County; Hugo Martin and Geoffrey Mohan in the San Fernando Valley and Fred Alvarez in Ventura County.

In Los Angeles were Stephanie Chavez, Gordon Dillow, Tina Griego, Sandra Hernandez, K. Connie Kang, Kathleen Kelleher, John L. Mitchell, Psyche Pascual, Lee Romney, Diane Seo and Irene Wielawski.

A Statistical Snapshot

Here are some of the numbers that define illegal immigration in California:

On a typical day . . .

1,283,000: The number of illegal immigrants the INS says are living in California.

2,083,000: The number of illegal immigrants the U.S. Census says are living in California.

235,000: The average number of children of illegal immigrants who attend kindergarten through high school in California--compared with an average student population of 5.5 million, according to the state Department of Finance.

60: The average number of babies born to illegal immigrants in the four Los Angeles County public hospitals, based on estimates last year by the county Department of Health Services.

1,085: The average number of illegal documents seized in Los Angeles County based on last year's total seizures of 395,950. The INS says the fake documents include green cards, birth certificates, driver's license blanks, Mexican birth certificate registries and Social Security cards.

15,202: The average number of statewide prison inmates who are illegal immigrants, out of a prison population of 109,367, according to the state Department of Corrections.

On Friday, Nov. 19 . . .

881: The number of people apprehended as they tried to cross the border near San Diego--compared with the average daily total of 1,457 apprehensions in that area.

320: The number of Border Patrol agents on duty near San Diego, spread over three shifts.

30: The number of criminal illegal immigrants taken into custody by the INS in Los Angeles County.

$350: The going rate to smuggle someone from Tijuana to Los Angeles, according to immigrants and agents along the border.

$5.57: The average hourly pay for a farm laborer hired directly in Ventura County, according to a county committee on agriculture.

Researched by NONA YATES / Los Angeles Times

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