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In a State of Emergency, City’s Relaxed

Times Staff Writer

Pressed against the Mexican border, this isolated city in the high desert ranks as one of the nation’s busiest gateways for illegal immigration.

Encounters with illegal border crossers are so frequent that even Mayor Ray Borane hardly noticed the group of Mexicans hiding in the bushes recently outside the home he is building.

“I have seen illegal immigration all my life,” he said, shrugging. “Illegal immigration has a life of its own. You can’t stop it.”

The impact of this human tide led Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to declare a state of emergency in four counties including Douglas’ last week. She cited the spread of “dangerous criminal activities” and the failure of the federal government to “secure the United States and Mexico border.”

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But on the front lines in Douglas, senior government leaders, federal agents and many residents are hard-pressed to identify the emergency conditions. Borane said the city of 15,000 was in generally good shape and had learned to live with the annoyances that accompanied the flow over the border.

Crime has been dropping, and the city hasn’t recorded a homicide in a couple of years, Police Chief Charles E. Austin said. Women in town say the streets are safe to walk at night.

Though the city’s downtown has faded and some stores are vacant, huge new retail outlets are adding employment and tax base. The city, which is 90% Latino, is far more dependent on trade with its sister city, Agua Prieta, than the rest of Arizona, Borane said.

Local civic institutions appear sound. Douglas’ public school system -- most of whose graduates go on to college -- is easily handling enrollment, which until this year had been declining.

“It is not an emergency or a crisis,” school district Supt. Gail Zamar said. “I just don’t see it.”

Douglas defies the conventional wisdom that towns all along the border have been overwhelmed by illegal immigration and are falling apart. Many here say border problems are being exaggerated by politicians, interest groups and the media.

To be sure, illegal immigrants cause substantial damage in and around Douglas. They have trampled sensitive ecosystems in the nearby mountains, dumped many tons of litter in the countryside, vandalized ranchers’ property and caused havoc with local healthcare systems.

But those burdens are part of a much larger relationship with Mexico. On balance, Borane said, immigration has been a benefit.

“The damage these illegals commit is minimal compared to what they contribute,” said Borane, who is chairman of a group of U.S. mayors on the Mexican border. “This country can absorb these people. They are producers. Their children can become productive citizens.”

Gov. Napolitano, however, said the federal government was not doing nearly enough to protect the state. She declared an emergency in four border counties, among them Cochise, which includes Douglas. Days earlier, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had made a similar declaration in his state.

The governors, both Democrats, declared emergencies to release additional state and federal funding for immigration enforcement.

“The rule of law has become victim, and the people who are experiencing it the most are those communities along the border,” Napolitano said in an interview. “It is a very, very big problem for us.”

U.S. Border Patrol agents don’t agree with the governor that they are not increasing enforcement or with the mayor that immigration cannot be controlled.

Border Control Chief David V. Aguilar said his agency had made significant progress in stanching the flow of illegal immigrants in the Tucson sector, which includes Douglas. By a wide margin, the Tucson sector ranks as the largest gateway for illegal immigration on the U.S.-Mexican border.

In the Tucson sector, agents have apprehended more than 400,000 illegal immigrants since October -- several times more than any other border sector. Apprehension is down 10% from the year ending last October, which the Border Patrol says reflects the deterrent effect of its enforcement.

Given those figures and what he calls an improving quality of life in Douglas, Aguilar says, “I wouldn’t call it an emergency.”

The Border Patrol has a massive presence in Douglas, with a gleaming new station and about 500 agents and 100 administrative employees to patrol 53 miles of the border.

In addition, it is equipped with more than 200 SUVs, trucks, vans and Jeeps, as well as horses, dogs, scooters and an armory of high-powered automatic weapons. Twenty years ago, the station had just 30 agents.

It has installed stadium-style lights and scores of cameras on towers along the border, able to zoom in on people in the brush from a mile away. A network of seismic sensors linked to the command center warns of footsteps.

For a stretch of 12 miles along the main section of Douglas, the patrol has erected an 18-foot-high steel fence, in part using surplus helicopter landing pads from the Persian Gulf War. Army engineers have built miles of roads along the border for Jeeps to patrol.

In the last year, the Border Patrol has also checked the FBI database for the fingerprints of every illegal immigrant it catches. About 122,000 felons have been caught attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico in the last 12 months, Aguilar said.

The multimillion-dollar investments have slowed but not stopped the flow. Every few feet, the fence has repairs where smugglers or illegal immigrants sawed openings. Many smugglers know how to avoid the cameras and sensors.

Greg Morales says he sees illegal immigrants breaching the fence every day. His front porch is 100 feet from the fence, along International Road, a rutted dirt path that is heavily patrolled by federal agents and lighted like Dodger Stadium at night.

Though he doesn’t blame illegal immigrants for trying to find jobs, his life on International Road over the last 72 years has been punctuated by frightening incidents.

Just a few weeks ago, he discovered three illegal immigrants hiding in a tree in his front yard. Before that, he was awakened in the middle of the night by a group on his roof.

Last year, smugglers threw rocks at him from the Mexican side, and he responded with shots from his .22-caliber handgun. He was hauled in to the Police Department, charged and ultimately fined $500.

“We have been shooting at each other for 20 years,” Morales said. “The Mexicans know how to fire a gun, but they don’t know how to aim.”

Ranchers outside Douglas are incensed by illegal immigrants who open livestock gates, drain water tanks and contaminate land with human waste, toilet paper and discarded food.

“The cattle and wildlife are in constant chaos at night,” said Wendy Glenn, who ranches 15,000 acres with her husband and daughter on the border with Mexico. “They cut fences, leave gates open, they kill snakes for food and trample paths.”

Glenn and her husband head Malpai Borderlands Group, an association of ranchers dedicated to environmental practices. The group has been disappointed with the response from Arizona’s congressional delegation and federal officials.

Another faction critical of federal efforts is the religious groups that have decried the human toll from increased enforcement.

As the Border Patrol has sealed the city, migrants have more often needed to journey far across the desert, says Grania Marcus, a member of Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian group that advocates for more humane treatment.

Three thousand immigrants have died in the desert over the last decade, Marcus said. Each Tuesday at sunset, the group chants and prays as it lays crosses with the names of dead immigrants on the Pan American Highway that leads to the Douglas Port of Entry.

Douglas’ residents generally do not support illegal immigration but are sympathetic to impoverished Mexicans and Central Americans who seek U.S. jobs. Their views are also moderated by the town’s close economic relationship with Mexico.

In October, Wal-Mart opened a supercenter a few hundred yards from the border. On any given day, about a third of the vehicles in the parking lot have license plates from the Mexican state of Sonora. The Wal-Mart even accepts pesos.

“We come here almost every day,” said Jesus Carlos Batista, an 11-year-old from Agua Prieta who had come to the Wal-Mart with his mother in the family’s Chevrolet Suburban. “I like the American chocolates.”

Jesus attends a Catholic school in Douglas, commuting from the Mexican side with his brother and sister. Many of his schoolmates are also Mexican nationals who cross the border legally every day.

Despite the strong bonds between residents of Douglas and Agua Prieta, most on the U.S. side clearly do want stricter border control.

“I have many Hispanic friends, and they are upset about this too,” said Kelly Savage, who lives outside of town. “The Border Patrol is constantly around my house. I know there are illegals out there too. It is a personal privacy issue.

“The problem is with the Mexican government,” she added. “If they could provide better for their people, they wouldn’t be streaming across the border.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Hot spot

Douglas, Ariz., is in the U.S. Border Patrol’s busiest gateway for illegal immigration.

Apprehended

Entire southwest border with Mexico

- Oct. ’03-Sept. ’04: 1,030,718

- Oct. ’04-Aug. ’05: 1,048,062

Tucson sector

- Oct. ’03-Sept. ’04: 446,479

- Oct. ’04-Aug. ’05: 400,550

Yuma sector

- Oct. ’03-Sept. ’04: 85,627

- Oct. ’04-Aug. ’05: 124,624

El Paso sector

- Oct. ’03-Sept. ’04: 94,214

- Oct. ’04-Aug. ’05: 108,680

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Graphics reporting by Julie Sheer


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