On Border, A Daily Game of Cat and Mouse

On border, a daily game of cat and mouse
Posted 9/6/2006 8:32 PM ET

By William M. Welch, USA TODAY

TECATE, Calif. In the soft light of dawn, Nick Coates crouches behind dry scrub at the mouth of Canyon 56 and waits.

Four figures make their way toward him in a line down a steep foot trail surrounded by bush. Coates springs from his hiding spot and, without touching his holstered gun, pushes the four men face down in the dirt.

Turning them over, Coates exclaims, “You again!”

So goes another day at the office for the U.S. Border Patrol, or La Migra to those who try to cross the rugged peaks here from the border with Mexico just beyond.

As the nation debates what to do about tens of thousands of people who cross into the USA illegally every year, it is here along the dusty border that one sees the enormous difficulty of cutting off the flow.

Despite night-vision cameras, helicopters and seismic-motion detectors, the success of border-enforcement policies in the Southwest often come down to whether an agent can run faster than whomever he is chasing.

On this night, the agents managed to outfox rather than outrun the men.

In serviceable Spanish, Coates asks the men for immigration papers. Each shakes his head no.

“This guy here,” he says, “I've caught three times in the last week and a half.”

The last time was three days ago, at the same desolate spot.

900,000 people caught this year

Roughly 10,000 agents working in shifts are charged with watching the 1,951-mile border with Mexico, from the beach west of Tijuana through Arizona and Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Assisting them are 6,000 members of the National Guard ordered to the border by President Bush.

This year, the Border Patrol has caught more than 900,000 people trying to cross. How many people are not caught is anybody's guess, the Border Patrol says.

This 21-mile section of the U.S.-Mexican border along state Highway 94 is one of the busiest sections of border in California. The rugged section stretching to San Diego was once the site of the biggest flow of illegal immigrants in the nation, with more than half a million illegal immigrants apprehended annually in the mid-1990s.

A decade-long enforcement crackdown, called Operation Gatekeeper, has focused equipment and agents here. As of Aug. 24, the Border Patrol had apprehended 129,655 illegal migrants entering in the San Diego sector in fiscal 2006. That's down significantly from the 1990s but up 16% over the same period in the previous year.

The Guard's presence appears to have had an effect. Apprehensions of illegal immigrants have dropped where the Guard's presence is heaviest, along the western Arizona border, according to Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar.

But the stepped-up enforcement appears to have rerouted traffic rather than slow it down.

Big numbers of illegal immigrants shifted to the east and are crossing the border near Tucson, says Todd Fraser, spokesman for the Border Patrol in Washington. Arrests also have increased recently in other parts of the border region in New Mexico and California, Aguilar says.

“The Border Patrol doesn't think there's going to be a point in time when we ever get to 100%, where we just seal off the border. We're not kidding anybody,” Fraser says. “But we want to make it a high probability that we're going to detect the intrusion and apprehend” illegal migrants.

On this night in Tecate, about a dozen agents are on patrol; a few others run the checkpoint and station.

For Coates, a supervisory agent, and Carlos Perez, an agent working with him, the workday begins shortly before midnight.

Coates has been at it for eight years. The 34-year-old former Army airborne infantryman relies on his conditioning and stamina to do the job. He sets out in the dark on hikes across intimidating terrain that can last hours perhaps his entire shift.

As is typical, most of those caught tonight are from the interior of Mexico. They are assisted by a foot guide, or “coyote,” who normally lives just across the border in or near the teeming city of Tijuana.

Those captured are taken to a Border Patrol regional headquarters at a checkpoint along Highway 94 outside Jamul, Calif., a tiny town in eastern San Diego County. They are held in a glass-walled cell, questioned and usually returned to Mexico within hours.

A bus bearing the Department of Homeland Security emblem waits to transport the night's tally home.

“They know we're going to take 'em to the station, give them some juice and crackers and send them back home so they can do it again tomorrow,” Coates says.

The U.S. policy of “catch and release” appears practical given that trying to jail all comers for illegally entering the country would require the building of a lot of prisons.

But what of those who are found to have committed violent crimes?

The agents wonder aloud about the wisdom of returning felons to Mexico, knowing that they will likely try again to enter the USA and perhaps succeed.

Agent T.M. Farmer, processing one man for deportation, says “the ones with the long criminal records” are who he hates to see released. He worries about confronting a violent criminal in the dark who is intent on getting past him.

Coates says: “There are hard-core felons, gang members. You have to be really, really careful.”

Twenty-five Border Patrol agents have died in the line of duty since 1992, and 93 since government agents began patrolling the border. Sixteen have been killed in the 66-mile-long San Diego sector, which includes this stretch of border.

To prosecute or not?

The decision to return or prosecute illegal immigrants caught at the border rests with the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego.

Deborah Hartman, spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, said in an e-mail response to questions that her office does not publicly discuss its guidelines on prosecution decisions.

“We prosecute thousands of immigration cases each year,” she says. “Our highest priority is prosecuting those who are a danger to others, either because they are risking peoples' lives or because they are coming to this country to commit crimes. So obviously someone's criminal history is an important factor, but it is not the only factor.”

Before anyone can be prosecuted or deported, they have to be caught. Technology has helped, but stemming the tide still relies mostly on cunning, running and courage.

High in the mountain peaks and along well-worn trails, seismic and other sensors alert agents when someone is walking by. The agents are so tuned to the nuances of the seismic signals that they can distinguish between human and animal foot traffic.

Large, infrared scopes fixed on the beds of pickups are used to scan the landscape. The night-vision scopes show surprising clarity on a screen in the truck cab. Scope operators who spot people radio agents who scout the terrain in vehicles or on foot.

The group captured at dawn had tripped the sensors. Perez surmised the canyon they would take and headed that way. Coates caught a glimpse of the group against a canyon wall. Then they lay in wait for the Mexicans to run into them.

The four men captured were in addition to eight caught about 1 a.m. by Coates and other agents. The men were caught crossing ranches in groups of three and five. Both groups tried to hide in the grass and gave up with no struggle.

Most of the men had light backpacks with water, some food and clothes. One fresh-faced young man carried books.

Some people slip by

By the time the agents' shift ends, 40 border crossers have been caught.

“It's just one of those days where you can throw a stick and hit a group,” Coates says.

But many have gotten in.

Perez and Coates go after a group that eludes the first line of sensors and agents.

They ride a Jeep along dirt trails until they can go no further, then hike up barely discernible trails to head them off at a pass. They find fresh footprints but no people. From the distant north comes the sound of barking dogs.

Well past dawn, the radio crackles. Sensors suggest it's a big one, maybe 15 people. Coates and agent Jose Hernandez hike uphill in pursuit. The sun is out and growing hot. The terrain turns steep.

The agents call for a helicopter. It swoops in close to the mountainside. After an hour of climbing, the agents conclude this group, too, has eluded them.

Tracks suggest the crossers split up and made their way down two nearby washes, through some culverts under the highway and toward the USA.

Coates and others have worked well past the end of their shifts. Tired and dirty, Coates is asked about the debate in Washington over how to enforce the border.

“Whatever they do,” he says, “I still have to go chase aliens.”