ARIVACA, Ariz.—The agents who patrol the porous U.S.-Mexico border welcome proposals to clamp down on illegal immigration, but they also want a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented aliens.
In and around the Arizona border with Mexico, many of the 2,400 men and women of the Border Patrol support President Bush's call to raise the total number of agents protecting the southern border by 6,000 to 18,000. They also support Thursday's Senate action to extend walls erected along the border with Mexico and to deploy more vehicle barriers and new technologies to frustrate illegal entry.
But they part ways with Bush, many vehemently, on his guest worker program, a centerpiece of the Senate's immigration legislation. And they believe that without cracking down hard on employers, higher paying American jobs will remain a magnet for the down-and-out in Mexico.
"When the top guy offers amnesty and guest worker programs, what does that tell them?" grumbled one veteran Border Patrol agent, pointing to 38 men and women he and colleagues had just apprehended near Arivaca Lake, some 40 miles from the border in Arizona's vast moon-like desert. The group had walked for two nights in hopes of reaching Tucson, about 68 miles from where they entered illegally.
The agent and several colleagues, who are prohibited by law from giving their names when discussing pending legislation, complained that Bush isn't willing to penalize those who've immigrated illegally, and they said that invites more illegal immigration.
On the Web site of U.S. Border Patrol Local 2544, the union that represents agents along much of the Arizona border with Mexico, there's contempt for Bush and Democrats alike as they work on immigration reform.
"Every day that President Bush and the Senate hold real border security hostage to their misguided amnesty program, thousands upon thousands of illegal aliens continue to flood into the country," reads the chapter's home page. "Make no mistake, most of them get by us. We are losing this war, and it's not even close."
Local 2544 spokesman Mike Albon, a 32-year retired Border Patrol veteran, is equally blunt. Washington's solutions, he said, are bound to fail because they don't punish employers.
"The interior enforcement has taken a backseat to border enforcement. So once they (aliens) get past the border, they're home free," said Albon. "If they don't have jobs that they can come to, then there's no reason for them to come, and they would stay where they are."
Border Patrol agents and their critics agree on that.
"It's good for Mexico and it's convenient for the United States to have cheap laborers," said Sandy Yahn, a retiree and volunteer for Los Samaritanos, or The Samaritans, a group that aids those found wandering through Arizona's desert.
Wearing a tie-dye hat and a hearing aid, Yahn and two other women from the retirement community of Green Valley spoke to Knight Ridder while they were assisting Bernardo Hernandez, 27, who was trying to flee poverty in the state of Guanajuato.
"Is Phoenix close?" he asked at 7:30 a.m. along a state road, exhausted after his second consecutive night of walking across rugged terrain. His arms and shoulders were cut and bleeding, his shoes ragged, his face weary.
Phoenix is a four-hour drive ahead, and a much longer walk. Within minutes, a passing Border Patrol vehicle screeches to a stop.
"U.S. citizen?" asks the agent. Hernandez shakes his head no and is quickly placed in the back of a vehicle that looks like a dogcatcher's truck.
Economic hardship in Mexico and the lure of willing U.S. employers combine to drive emigration from Mexico.
"We just want to get ahead," explained Javier, just deposited back in Mexico by the U.S. Border Patrol. At home in the southern state of Veracruz, the best Javier can hope for is $10 a day, about what a construction worker makes in an hour in much of the United States.
For decades, Mexicans have entered the United States legally and illegally for seasonal work at packing plants, slaughterhouses and on farms. Many came from border states in Mexico or its central farm belt.
Today's immigration, however, is different. Most of the illegal immigrants Knight Ridder talked to in the desert, under Border Patrol custody or waiting to cross from Mexico, were from the poorer south of Mexico. They're dark skinned, almost destitute, Indian or mestizo—mixed with Indian descent. Many barely speak Spanish.
"You ask yourself, how will they do it? They barely speak Spanish, how are they going to speak English?" said Mario Lopez, who runs local Grupo Beta, or the immigrant aid office, in the tumbleweed Mexican border town of Sasabe.
Rank-and-file Border Patrol agents also want more agents, more technology and more walls and vehicle barriers.
"The more effectively we can make use of technology, the more efficient we are," said Jim Hawkins, a senior Border Patrol agent and spokesman in Nogales, Ariz.
Agents particularly like the motion detecting sensors that are strategically placed throughout the desert. More than 10,000 are in use, but as of August 2005, those sensors covered about 4 percent of the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Agents also want more drones, the unmanned aircraft that can pinpoint the location of anyone for agents wearing night-vision goggles.
Next week, Bush is to begin sending 6,000 National Guardsmen to the four U.S. states that border Mexico for temporary, rotating deployments until 6,000 new Border Patrol agents can be hired, trained and added to today's roster of 12,000 agents.
Critics said that those new hires won't be enough to make a difference, and a few dozen miles farther west, in the Mexican border town of Sasabe, local immigration chief Moise Osuna didn't disagree. He thinks there isn't much that could stop poor Mexicans and Central Americans trying to escape deep poverty.
"Need doesn't recognize borders," he offered stoically.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
Need to map