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Numbers game on the border


ALONG THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER - As the son of a retired law enforcement officer, I grew up around cops. So when I got a call offering me a private tour and briefing of the operations of the San Diego sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, I jumped at the chance.

I know what some of you are thinking - that the Border Patrol and I aren't exactly simpaticos on the issue of illegal immigration. Well, you're wrong.

It's true that I have railed against a lot of half-baked ideas for combating illegal immigration. And for that, some readers have accused me of "condoning" the practice. At least I'd like to think that's why they do it and not because of, say, my Latin surname - and the fact that most illegal immigrants come from Latin America.

But I've never stopped insisting that the United States has the right to protect its border. Nor have I ever lost respect for the Border Patrol agents who assume that mission.

Oops. Forget I said "mission." That's why people burn out, one agent told me. But this mission can't be completed. You'll never seal the border, the agent said, because Washington wants it open.

It was a refrain I heard all day long, that our immigration policy is chaotic because the rich and powerful benefit from the chaos. The Border Patrol may be the only law enforcement agency in the country responsible for enforcing laws that many Americans don't want enforced.

At least that's how it looks from a Border Patrol helicopter 500 feet over the U.S.-Mexico border. The San Diego sector is responsible for a 66-mile stretch.

From the air, with Mexico on one side and the United States on the other, you see the strangest things. In Tijuana, there are beautiful, two-story homes with manicured lawns where the U.S. security wall doubles as the homeowner's back fence. Farther along, a group of men are camped out in the brush, waiting for nightfall and their cue to try to cross into the United States.

As we approach the easternmost point of the fence line, the area farthest away from the Border Patrol headquarters, I mentioned to the pilot that if I were coming across, this would be where I'd do it. He smiled and pointed to what awaited would-be border-crossers on the U.S. side - a mountain pass, which he said takes hikers three or four days to get through if they survive the elements and the mountain lions. OK, on second thought, maybe I'd rather cross near civilization and take my chances with the Border Patrol.

What a no-brainer it must be for Mexicans who are thinking about entering the United States. Here you have two countries with a huge economic disparity, side by side, where a job that pays $3 a day in one country will earn you $60 in another. And the only thing standing in the way is a flimsy barrier. Naturally, immigrants are going to cross.

Of course, once they do, they'll have to get past some well-trained and determined Border Patrol agents - equipped with off-road vehicles, helicopters, bikes, night-vision goggles and scopes, horses, motion sensors, boats, riot guns with pepper spray pellets, canines, even a plainclothes division for working urban areas.

And yet, all these toys aren't enough to stop the flow of the have-nots desperate for what the haves have.

For one veteran agent, the best strategy is deterrence. You have to cut down on the number of people who get into the system by adding manpower and building more fences.

"It's a numbers game," he said. "And it's a game you'll never win unless you deter entry."

Another agent says that enforcement can't be targeted just at the border. The way it is now, the farther you get from the border, the weaker the punishment. You have to get much more aggressive with employers, he said. Forget fines. Close their businesses, he said.

A supervisor agrees, but he also suggests something even more ambitious - that the United States spur economic investment and job development in the 10 poorest states in Mexico, the same 10 states that send the most people north. That way, people would have opportunities at home, he says, and they wouldn't come to the United States at all.

It all sounds like good common sense - meaning you'll probably never hear anything like it coming out of Washington.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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