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Crackdown Pushes Border Crossings East : Immigration: U.S. efforts get results in San Diego but shift woes to Tecate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Discouraged by walls of brown steel and green uniforms at the San Diego border, Miguel Barragan decided to try Tecate.

In his bedraggled 1975 Datsun sedan, the veteran smuggler toiled up the highway from Tijuana to this remote mountain town, which has been transformed into a hotbed of illegal immigration this year by forces of politics, economics and sheer human tenacity.

Barragan passed cheap hotels awash in business, the small bus station where fellow Tijuana “guides” hustle obedient migrants off buses, the tree-lined downtown park where grizzled, deliberate smuggling bosses call the shots from an open-air restaurant.

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On a recent Friday afternoon Barragan made his move, driving through a gap in the border fence with five clients--two crammed in the sun-baked trunk. But U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted him within minutes, locking him up and dashing his hopes of earning a few hundred dollars for taking the illegal immigrants on the winding hourlong ride to San Diego.

“I did this a lot about 10 years ago, but it was much easier in Tijuana then,” the 43-year-old Barragan said with a gap-toothed smile, raising rangy arms against an array of adversaries. “Now you have all this--[Gov. Pete] Wilson, Proposition 187, the operation by the Border Patrol. I have to come all the way to Tecate to make a little money.”

The lament of the smuggler--and of Tecate’s leaders about an influx of migrants--are among the most tangible results of Operation Gatekeeper.

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Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the Border Patrol’s campaign to control the border in San Diego, a historic, $46-million buildup of agents and fortifications. The raucous debate about the outcome pits the industrious public relations efforts of the Clinton Administration against the indiscriminate broadsides of Republican critics, a din likely to get noisier as the 1996 presidential election approaches.

Evaluating Operation Gatekeeper depends a great deal on how success is defined. But a few points are clear.

Crossing the 14-mile San Diego-Tijuana border has become more difficult, according to smugglers, human rights activists, government officials and immigrants. The shift to rural routes has small Border Patrol stations east of San Diego struggling with arrest increases of as much as 1,700%. The use of false documents at legal ports of entry has surged. The traditional smuggling fee of about $300 has doubled in some cases.

And the patrol in San Diego--where almost half the arrests of the entire Southwest border are made--has grown to a record 1,435 agents.

“The border is telling its own story,” said Johnny Williams, the chief agent in San Diego. “When I talk about border control, I talk about giving us a reasonable chance to confront an entry. . . . We are raising the likelihood of arrests.”

Williams sounds cautious, however, compared to past declarations by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and top immigration officials, who are under fire from Republican critics and disgruntled insiders. Enthusiastic predictions that Gatekeeper would cause arrests to plummet have not materialized.

Although arrests are down in the busy westernmost five miles of the border, the totals for the nine stations in San Diego County went up. The San Diego sector made more than half a million arrests during the past year, a 16% increase compared to last year. That shows a failure to establish a meaningful deterrent, critics say, calling the operation timid and cosmetic.

“I don’t think they are really serious about stopping illegal immigration,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon). “They are torn between trying to get good publicity for the President and their real feeling that illegal immigration should be winked at and serves a social purpose in our relationship with Mexico.”

In addition to hype, though, the Justice Department has devoted more resources to immigration than previous administrations. The budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service has more than doubled to about $2.6 billion in five years. Visits to the border by the attorney general and Doris Meissner, the INS commissioner, have become routine.

Ironically, the Administration may have undercut itself by raising expectations, according to one INS official, who recalled promises that Operation Gatekeeper would match the results of a “blockade” in El Paso that reduced crossing dramatically.

“The mistake was to say that we could duplicate the El Paso results in a year,” the official said. “If we have done that, it hasn’t been reflected in the numbers. There is a lot of skepticism. You are not going to gain control in one year, five years or 10 years. There are too many factors, economic and political. . . . It’s clearly better than it was before. The question is: Is it everything they said it was going to be?”

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The Texas blockade deployed a high-profile row of agents along the Rio Grande to deter crossers, many going only as far as day jobs in El Paso. Gatekeeper employs a more traditional layered formation of agents positioned to catch immigrants after they enter. Critics want all the agents massed on the front line, dismissing concerns that the terrain differs and that the greater volume and urgency of Southern California-bound immigration could cause violence.

“I don’t agree that America cannot man her borders, that smugglers can control the border itself, that our only hope is a fallback position,” Hunter said. “We send American soldiers into dangerous situations around the world on a weekly basis to defend other countries.”

Comparisons to El Paso rely on a false premise, said Robert Bach, the INS executive associate commissioner. The patrol has not held back, he said, but merely adjusted to canyons where it is impractical to station agents on the boundary itself.

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“This is an incredibly false and sharp contrast that is being inflated for political reasons,” Bach said. “The strategy in both places is the same.”

Bach pointed out that arrests declined 37% along the westernmost five miles of the Imperial Beach station, which has been the focus of the operation because crossers can reach cover in southern San Diego within minutes. The disruption of crossings at the busiest station on the border represents a “sea change,” he said. And Bach contends that arrests rose elsewhere largely for two reasons: The same people are being caught more often and the catastrophic devaluation of the Mexican peso in December has spurred more Mexicans to go north.

“Now we are beginning to see evidence to show that a significant part of the apprehensions is an increase in the real number of people trying to get across,” he said.

That evidence remains soft because nagging defects in the patrol’s much-touted, fingerprint-based computer identification system prevent gathering reliable data on recidivism, officials say. They cite intelligence reports and interviews suggesting that Mexico’s crisis has stoked immigration--an assertion disputed by some analysts and supported by others, including Father Gianni Fanzolato, director of a Tijuana shelter called Casa Del Migrante.

“The Mexican crisis is very strong,” said Fanzolato, a Catholic priest, who said the population at the shelter swelled by more than 22% this year.

The Border Patrol plans to get tougher in the operation’s second year: deploying most of an expected 700 to 1,300 new agents in San Diego, prosecuting more illegal crossers and starting a pilot program to fly prisoners back to the Mexican interior. Commanders predict crossing will continue to shift east.

Greater obstacles push migrants into the hands of the smugglers, who in the past used the rural trails and roads known as the Ruta Verde, or Green Route, mainly for running drugs and high-priced non-Mexican immigrants. Smuggling rings now recruit Mexican clients in Tijuana and take them by car, truck and bus to Tecate, a city of about 90,000 whose claims to international fame are a brewery and a health spa.

Predictably, the expansion of the organized smuggling rackets in Tecate has generated disturbing flows of needy people and illicit cash, according to Mayor Pablo Contreras. The city lacks shelters and health facilities to serve a floating population of several thousand migrants a day, some of whom end up sleeping in the open, said the earnest 33-year-old mayor, a member of the opposition National Action Party.

“A lot of money flows that corrupts the society and the police,” he said. “We don’t have the social infrastructure of Tijuana. . . . The tourism and business sectors are concerned that this will become another Tijuana. It is worrisome for us.”

Along with other government and human rights officials, Contreras publicly accuses the Mexican federal judicial police in Tecate of working with smugglers. The mayor cites confessions of arrested smugglers and incidents in which municipal police clashed with federal officers who were allegedly standing guard as smugglers drove immigrants to the U.S. side.

After Contreras denounced the alleged corruption two weeks ago, gunshots were fired outside his home and the home of the city police chief. The mayor does not believe it was a coincidence.

“The municipal police have instructions not to get into confrontations,” he said. “We are not going to get into gunfights because of these issues. . . . But we are not going to keep quiet because the peace of our community is at stake.”

The mayor acknowledges accusations by human rights advocates that municipal and state officers have also been caught in corruption and extortion of migrants. He welcomes the recent decision by the Mexican federal immigration service to create an offshoot of Grupo Beta, Tijuana’s respected border police unit, in Tecate. The mayor still worries about the pernicious effects of fast money in the once-placid town, decrying the “social corruption” of owners of low-budget apartments and downtown hotels who do business with smuggling kingpins known by picturesque nicknames such as the Hoarse One and Freckles.

A popular hub for smugglers staging groups of clients thrives on a side street off busy Avenue Juarez: the Motel El Paraiso, whose long and bleak cinder-block halls are lined with barred windows.

Migrants leaned on the motel’s second-floor balcony on a recent Friday night, talking in murmurs, looking north toward the dark mountains. In the shadows of the balcony, Jose Luis, a robust and wary man in his 30s, allowed that he was headed for Los Angeles. He had worked construction there in the past, then returned to his native Guadalajara and found work at a laboratory. Setting off anew for Los Angeles, he fell in with a group of fellow migrants at the motel.

“None of us have met before,” he said. “None of us have crossed through Tecate. I went through Tijuana before. We will see what happens.”

A few blocks north, the border runs along the edge of residential neighborhoods like a poorly lit, garbage-strewn back alley. Unlike Tijuana, there are no crowds or high-intensity lights at the popular crossing spots: a cemetery, a hilltop park. Because the municipal police pursue smugglers and cooperate with the U.S. Border Patrol, the crossing is fast and furtive.

Groups typically hike on foot through the brush to meet vehicles on the U.S. side. The hazards are considerable. A group of half a dozen muddy and dehydrated men surrendered to agents after spending two days marooned in a canyon.

“The smuggler told us to wait and he never came back,” said Jose Gonzalez, 28, after agents gave him crackers and juice and released him back into Tecate. “We haven’t eaten for two days.”

Some people in Tecate sound not unlike Southern Californians when they talk about the desperate invasion. They complain about scruffy people in the parks, the dangers of diseases from the Mexican interior, the potential for crime. Contreras believes that the anger is misguided.

“We have identified the wrong enemy,” the mayor said. “In times of crisis we always focus on the weakest, the poorest, in this case the migrants. What has to be done is create more work in the interior, improve the economy and the policies for keeping them in the states of origin.”

Outside the mayor’s window in the downtown park, a jaunty old guitarist named Leobe shares this tolerant outlook. He and his partner, Gonzalo, strum sad songs as migrants and smugglers congregate at benches and plan the journey north.

“They are working people,” he said. “They don’t cause problems.”


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