El Paso Blockade Holding Fast on Illegal Crossings : Border: Influx of immigrants along the patrolled 20-mile area is down 73%. Crime also has eased.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Determined to get through the blockade, the 10 Mexican men climbed into a Santa Fe railway grain hopper in Ciudad Juarez one night, closed the hatch and waited for delivery in the United States.

The car made it across the Rio Grande. But instead of moving on to Albuquerque, where a friend planned to let them out, they sat idle all the next morning on a sidetrack in El Paso. The sun rose and the heat topped 100 degrees inside the metal container. By late morning the young men from Zacatecas and Guanajuato were pounding on the sides for help.

A railway yardman heard their cries. He opened the hatch, but first called law enforcement. And the illegal immigrants who had hoped to find work in the United States came coughing and gagging into the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.

"We didn't believe what we'd heard about the blockade," said 26-year-old Jamie Salazar, later cooling off in a Border Patrol detention cell. "But when I get home, I'm going to tell people not to come here any more."

Half a year after federal agents set up a human blockade along the 20-mile border sector here, the line is holding fast. But perhaps more important, it also is dramatically changing the face of this international community, where illegal immigrants once marched northward in record numbers, past a Border Patrol operation unable to stand in their way.

According to Border Patrol officials, the number of illegal crossings has continued to drop since the blockade was thrown up in September--down 73% over the same period a year earlier.

El Paso crime statistics also are down, officials said, most notably in auto thefts. And complaints against the Border Patrol have dwindled.

At the same time, local public opinion--which once derided the Border Patrol--appears to have swung to the side of the agents. Even their most vocal critics, an angry group of students and teachers at an El Paso high school next to the border fence, have dropped allegations about harassment and settled a federal lawsuit against the Border Patrol.

Even a local human rights coalition, which would rather see El Paso and Ciudad Juarez declared a "free zone" that would open up the border, concedes that the Border Patrol's initiative is working.

Under the blockade, agents sit quietly all day and all night at more than 100 spots along the border. Sitting in patrol jeeps along the levee, they read paperback books, study home college courses and drink Thermoses full of black coffee.

Their steady presence has turned back most of those who once came over on crude skiffs or plastic life rafts, through holes in the fence or in drainage canals, in the backs of trucks and the trunks of cars . . . even those who brazenly walked across the three river bridges.

The phenomenon, unlike anything in the decades-old game of border policing, means one of two things: Either those trying to enter the country illegally have all but conceded the popular El Paso crossing to the U.S. authorities, or they are going around to smaller locations in New Mexico or Texas. Indeed, officials said some smaller border towns have begun experiencing increases of up to 200% in illegal crossings.

Nevertheless, Chief Agent Silvestre Reyes pledges to maintain the line as long as he remains in El Paso.

"This was a chaotic border," Reyes said of what he found when he was transferred here last July. "It was totally out of control. It was wide open. It was commonly known in Mexico and as far away as Los Angeles that El Paso was the way to cross over."

He described the current situation along the border as tranquil.

"People wonder why this wasn't done before," he said.

In Washington, immigration officials are reviewing the feasibility of other blockades along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Verne Jervis, an INS spokesman in Washington, said that the San Diego-Tijuana area--the nation's busiest entry point for undocumented workers--is not conducive to such a blockade.

Jarvis said the canyons and rough topography there, and the lack of a natural obstacle such as the Rio Grande, would make a human blockade too costly and ineffective.

Instead, he said, officials are reviewing other options for the San Diego area, such as new technology and a 40% increase to the 1,000-agent contingent there.

"We are looking at more lights and fencing and sensors and television monitors. And also new strategies of moving people around," he said.

El Paso had been ranked the second-most porous border in the country. Today, it has dropped to No. 4, after San Diego, McAllen, Tex., and Tucson.

When Reyes shut down the El Paso border last fall, he dubbed his effort Operation Blockade. But amid the initial clamor came the cry that the word "blockade" was offensive, recalling confrontations in Cuba and Haiti. Bowing to those concerns, Reyes changed the name to Operation Hold the Line.

Once the human wall settled in, the public gradually began to accept the change. Last month, for instance, an exit poll of voters in a Democratic primary election found that 84% of them favored the crackdown.

James Gonzalez, a 16-year agent with most of his career in El Paso, recently drove through a riverfront barrio known as Chihuahuita, explaining how the neighborhood once was overrun with undocumented workers and the gangs who preyed on them. But now a neighborhood park is cleaned up and elderly residents sit outside on their porch stoops. New graffiti on a tenement wall proclaimed: "We're all for the blockade."

Gonzalez also recalled the frustrating days of chasing illegal immigrants around town, of complaints from local residents about undocumented workers who bothered motorists by trying to wash their windshields to earn tips.

In those days, he said, illegal immigrants seemed to be everywhere. "People were popping out of manholes in the middle of the street."

At Bowie High School, students and teachers once complained about agents tearing through the campus in search of illegal immigrants, and often as not stopping the wrong people. The school is 99% Latino. They sued the Border Patrol to stop the harassment, and then dropped the legal action after the blockade took effect.

"Once they stopped me and once they put a gun to the head of our assistant football coach," said Grace Hernandez, the school secretary. "They thought he was transporting illegals or carrying drugs across the border or something.

"That went on all the time, for many years," Hernandez said. "But now this has helped us tremendously. We don't see them on campus any more. They don't stop our kids any more. The harassment has stopped."

At the El Paso Police Department, Sgt. Lalo Balderrama said auto thefts in the downtown area have dropped 34% in the last year.

But, the sergeant added: "The majority of the illegal aliens are not going to commit a crime. They don't want to break into a house or rob people. They come over to look for a job.

"It's only a small percentage who are criminals. But this blockade has stopped those who are coming over here for not always good intentions."

Frank Kamoroff, administrative director of El Paso's Downtown Development Assn., said merchants at first feared that the blockade would cost them business. He has heard stories of scattered retail failures, including the stores of one woman who sold inexpensive household gifts and of a man who for 10 years sold costume jewelry.

But most of the merchants have not seen an appreciable change in retail sales, Kamoroff said. "I guess it's proved that most of those who were sneaking over were not shoppers anyway," he said.

At the Border Rights Coalition, coordinator Suzan Kern questioned whether the blockade will last much longer. As long as it goes on, she said, it merely moves the problem to remote desert areas where people battle heat and exhaustion to make it into the United States.

"They're not stopping it; they're just shifting it," she said of the new blockade. "There are 50-year-old women getting up at 4 in the morning now to go around and climb the mountains to get here. These are not criminals. These are women who want to come here and work cleaning our houses and watching our children."

Her group recently conducted its own poll on the blockade, focusing on its impact in the Chihuahuita barrio. They found that about one-third of the residents believe crime is the same there, convincing them that local residents--not illegal immigrants--are responsible.

"The crossers don't have time to steal," one resident told the pollsters. "They don't bother us. They cross through. They don't stick around."

The Mexican government also is cautiously watching the situation, after first predicting that the blockade would not last.

Although U.S. Border Patrol agents used to return illegal immigrants to Ciudad Juarez, Mexican officials now walk over the bridge themselves to escort them back. On the return trip, they can't help but see the graffiti painted on the Mexican side of the concrete levee.

Warnings like "No Mas Bloqueos" and "Denuncie Abusos de las Migras" angrily call for an end to Operation Hold the Line.

Agent Gonzalez and the hundreds of other Border Patrol officers can read the slogans from their vantage points along the El Paso levee, too. Every day they can see them, and every day the blockade continues to hold.

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