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BORDER BATTLES

May 29, 2000

Ted Robbins of station KUAT in Tucson, reports the (illegal) immigration story from the Arizona-Mexico border. .

SPOKESMAN: Listen up. Okay, let me go ahead and call roll. Give me a "here," please.

TED ROBBINS: Every month brings new names to call at this U.S. Border Patrol station. That's how often a class of recruits joins the 450 agents already here, agents such as Tim Beckley.

SPOKESMAN: Delta 252-280.

TED ROBBINS: Tim Beckley came here from the Pacific Northwest less than three years ago, lured by the pay, the benefits and, he says, the satisfying work. These days, there is plenty of it.

SPOKESMAN: $1,000, $1,500 a day. Apprehensions... there's more illegal aliens that you can shake a stick at. 45, a drop in the bucket.

TED ROBBINS: The strong U.S. economy has created two problems for the border patrol: Millions of illegal immigrants and not enough agents to keep them out. The immigrants are coming because work is plentiful. Even at minimum wage, many earn more here in one hour than they can in a day in Mexico. Under a 1996 immigration law, the Border Patrol is required to hire 1,000 new agents each year through 2001. But it can't find enough eligible recruits to meet its quota. David Aguilar is the sector chief responsible for hundreds of miles of border security in Arizona.

DAVID AGUILAR, Border Patrol: It's been a challenge. And the reason for that, of course, is like any other large organization, large employer within the United States right now, our economy is very, very good, which is a good situation to be in. But because of that, we are competing with other employers out there to bring in the qualified applicants into our organization.

AD SPOKESMAN: Are you looking for a career? (Heavy metal music plays)

TED ROBBINS: For the first time, the Border Patrol is resorting to television commercials. With 8,000 people, it's already the government's largest uniformed law enforcement agency.

AD SPOKESMAN: If you want excitement in your job, then join the United States border patrol. Sign up now and you can receive a $2,000 signing bonus: The Border Patrol, a career with borders, but no boundaries.

DAVID AGUILAR: In the history of the Border Patrol, though, we haven't seen any kind of buildup to the degree that we're seeing now -- but it is necessary in order for us to the job and accomplish the mission, the strategy that we're putting forth right now.

TED ROBBINS: That strategy first had thousands of agents patrolling the large cities of El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, California. They slowed the flow of illegal immigration there, forcing the immigration bulge to move to smaller communities in Arizona. Then the Border Patrol forced immigrants away from those smaller communities, like Douglas, and into the surrounding countryside. Immigrants pay human smugglers called coyotes to help them cross. This group was spotted at night using thermal imaging cameras. Once inside the U.S., they wait for a ride. But if the drivers try to take a highway North, they are stopped at a recently installed Border Patrol checkpoint.

OFFICER: Good evening, gentlemen. U.S. Border patrol. Please state your citizenship.

PEOPLE IN VEHICLE: U.S.

OFFICER: All right, thank you, have a good evening.

TED ROBBINS: These vehicles belong to smugglers who tried to get around the checkpoint. They were caught in places like Gary McBride's Ranch, 25 miles north of the border.

GARY McBRIDE, Rancher: They come right by my house and I can see them. By now, we know a load when it goes by. Some of the loads are so heavy sometimes that they actually... The bumpers are falling off, because they're dragging the ground. So I'd say just about every day, maybe two, three times a day we have different contacts with these people, yes.

TED ROBBINS: And how much of a hassle has it been?

GARY McBRIDE: Well, I'm supposed to be running a ranch. I'm not supposed to be chasing people around, keeping them off my property.

TED ROBBINS: There is no road here, so McBride says vehicles plow through his fences. To keep them out, he's taken to sticking spikes in his pastures. McBride and many of his fellow ranchers say they not only support the border patrol, they'd even welcome the U.S. Army or National Guard troops.

GARY McBRIDE: I'd like to see our governor, which we have gone to and talked to, we've gone plum to Janet Reno, plum to the President of the United States. And we've asked to put the... Maybe some military or any kind of other force on the border, not as a military patrol, but as a spotters for the border patrol to help them out; to just say, "here comes some here, "or "get a couple of more helicopters," or something out, or something like that, you know. And so far it hasn't worked very good.

TED ROBBINS: So McBride calls Border Patrol agents daily. They come to his ranch to question drivers, pick up illegal immigrants, and to coordinate surveillance location with neighbors.

SPOKESMAN: 57 is going to be Bruno Peak.

TED ROBBINS: They are trying to stop people like Raul Astudillo and his wife Mireya. They traveled 1,200 miles from their home in Southern Mexico to the border. They were headed for Las Vegas. (Speaking Spanish)

RAUL ASTUDILLO (translated): Her brother has papers, and he was going to help us find a job. I came here to work and do better for our families -- in Las Vegas, yes, to work in a restaurant.

TED ROBBINS: Once across the border, they spent two days walking and waiting for an arranged ride, but Border Patrol found them first. Astudillo his wife join other captured illegal immigrants at the Border Patrol station. They are photographed, fingerprinted, and processed. And in a matter of hours, they are put on a bus and sent back to the border. Meanwhile, in the last two years, arrests of illegal immigrants who live and work inside the country have dropped by two-thirds. In other words, it's harder to get into the country, but once you're in, it's easier to stay. That leniency, critics say, is because with unemployment rates at 30-year lows, workers are needed, and they say that makes the border buildup hypocritical.

ISABEL GARCIA, Attorney: It's a lie to the American public that somehow we are protecting America's interest by militarizing this border. I submit it's the exact opposite.

TED ROBBINS: Isabel Garcia is an attorney and activist with the organization DeRechos Humanos, or Human Rights.

ISABEL GARCIA: Workers come here to work; they create wealth; they contribute to the community, not only in taxes, but they purchase and create other jobs and wealth.

TED ROBBINS: Douglas Mayor, Ray Borane, says if employers or the INS crack down further, the U.S. economy would be adversely affected.

MAYOR RAY BORANE, Douglas, Arizona: I would say the general public might have some notion, but I'll tell you who really does realize the impact, and that's the people in industry-- the hotel/motel, the construction people, landscaping, car wash businesses, agriculture, meat packing businesses -- they know the impact. If this were to cease and all of these people were to be deported tomorrow, it would paralyze every one of those industries, and they know it.

TED ROBBINS: David Aguilar says raids on employers have slowed in favor of a new strategy.

DAVID AGUILAR: There have been fewer operations that actually concentrate on apprehensions. We have increased our operations that relate to educating the employer, to working with the employer, to assisting the employer in order to reduce the chance-- or the opportunity, in some cases-- that the employer hire the illegal immigrant.

TED ROBBINS: Employers, especially in services industries such as hotels, need the labor. They can be fined for knowingly hiring illegal workers, and workers are required to provide proof they are legal. But fake Social Security cards and other I.D.'s are easily bought. To ease the problem, Ray Borane advocates a temporary guest worker program.

RAY BORANE: Try to control the people that are already in the country. Try to systemically record and register and find out where they are, and have it documented. Have them come out of that darkness of their illegality and put them on a level playing field, and let the word be sent back to Mexico that, "you know what? You can't come over here anymore and work illegally, because they're hiring us legally now."

TED ROBBINS: In a major policy reversal, the AFL/CIO recently called for amnesty for illegal workers already in the U.S. So they can be more easily represented. That would suit Isabel Garcia. She opposes guest worker programs, because in the past, they've exposed immigrants to abusive working conditions and abrupt repatriation.

ISABEL GARCIA: Our question is, if we recognize we need workers, why can't we just allow workers to come in and treat them with full respect, full dignity, and full enforcement of the labor laws. We cannot have a program that simply says, "we need workers so we need to be able to bring in a group of people that we can exploit and have them work in our midst, have families, and then uproot them and put them back into their countries."

TED ROBBINS: The Border Patrol's goal, of course, is to enforce legal, controlled immigration. But most immigrants say they can't afford to wait months or years for that process. And they say because they can get through, they don't need to wait. (Speaking Spanish)

MANUEL FONG-PEROSA (translated): I have been here before. Yes, in Kansas City, for a long time. I went back to Mexico, and then I decided to come back and try again. And I think we're all here for the same reasons-- until we achieve our goal.

TED ROBBINS: The Border Patrol says it caught more than 1.5 million people last year who illegally entered the country. But that statistic actually counts apprehensions, not individuals. Most people who are caught try again until they make it.

ISABEL GARCIA: I've talked to people have made 30 attempts in one week, finally to get across. And they get counted 29 times, and then the 30th time they get across. And so we have to be skeptical about their methodology and how they're counting.

TIM BECKLEY, Border Patrol: Well, there's definitely an element of frustration. Seeing the same alien, catching the same alien three, four times in the same shift can be very, very disconcerting.

TED ROBBINS: That frustration is likely to continue until the Border Patrol finds enough agents to fulfill its mission, or congress and the Clinton administration decide that mission no longer makes sense politically and economically.