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In better times they were sleek, gleaming sedans and custom vans, classy date-night transportation, latest models, freeway cruisers with air conditioning, stereo cassette decks, power steering, and power brakes. They made you look and feel good.

Now they sit in long, lifeless rows, covered with dust, neglected and abandoned under a low, gray morning sky. Assorted fragments of their former owners’ lives are scattered inside: Jockey underwear, crumpled receipts, owner’s manuals, a comb. The carpet stains are still there, the ashtrays are filled with cigarette butts. The odometers have the same readings they did months ago.

It is 8:00 a.m. An elderly attendant swings open the gates to the lot, and within minutes forty or fifty people are swarming around the vans, trucks and cars. The visitors glance at numbers scrawled o the windshields then consult thin pamphlets that list the vehicles in numeric order along with their makes and models.

For the next hour and a half, people roam up and down the rows of vehicles in this fenced-off lot next to the main runway at Ream Field in Imperial Beach. Helicopters land and take off constantly a few hundred yards away, but the people ignore them – they’re here to inspect the merchandise. It’s a ritual, the equivalent of running your hand down a horse’s flanks, examining its hooves, checking its teeth. In this case, the flanks are passenger doors, the hooves are steel-belted radials, the teeth are engines and glove compartments. The federal government’s vehicle-sale number 09FBPS6122 – consisting primarily of vehicles whose owners were caught trying to smuggle people into this country – is under way.

Item number 69: a 1977 Chevy pickup, tan. “Hey look at this — customized!” jokes a burly young man as he shows a friend that the passenger door is missing.

Item number 55: a 1974 Chevrolet van, blue, odometer reading 70,000 miles. “Well, I’d bid $450 for this,” a middle-age man says in a low voice. A middle-age woman next to him – his wife? – nods and scribbles something on her program.

Item number 5: a 1983 Toyota Celica, red, passenger side badly dented with a few spots showing rust. “Most of these are junk,” complains a bearded, fortyish man to his overweight female companion.

Item number 43: a 1977 Buick Regal, black, fabric on the front seat worn, hubcaps speckled with rust, odometer reading 28,245 miles (probably means 128, 245). A narrow-waisted man with a mustache and curly black hair looks the car over, then gives one of the tires a little kick.

Most of the vehicles are not impressive, but the sheer number and variety of them is: 108 in all, ranging from a black Datsun 280Z I nearly perfect condition to a lime-green 1981 Dodge Ram Charger that has two flat tires and is missing its windshield, driver door, and passenger –door window. Also included in the sale are a pair of late-model Harley-Davidson motorcycles and a 1974 Dodge Commander motor home.

Some of the vehicles have been seized by the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the Tecate, Otay Mesa, and San Ysidro border crossings, and a few have been confiscated from drug dealers and other criminals by the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the majority – about two thirds – have been seized by the Border Patrol. “More cars are seized here than in any other sector of the border nationwide,” says Luis Valderrama. “This is the most notorious alien-smuggling point in the nation.”

Valderrama is a big, heavyset man with jet-black hair and the title of vehicle seizure officer for the border patrol’s San Diego sector, which includes all of San Diego, Orange, and Riverside counties, except for the border crossings. “A car is seizable if it has an [undocumented] alien in it,” he explained. “If it does, the case is the opposite of a criminal case – the owner is guilty unless he can prove to us that he’s innocent. The only exempt vehicles are cars that are illegally in the possession of another person, and common carriers like taxis. If a taxi driver picks up a fare, how does he know if it’s an illegal alien? But we have seized taxis when their drivers have been observed making pickups of illegal aliens that were obviously arranged. And sometimes aliens who have been arrested will implicate cabbies.

“It is logistically impossible to prosecute every single person arrested for transporting aliens,” Valderrama continued. “The courts would be clogged. So this is another enforcement tool. Taking someone’s car gets their attention.” In effect, the government is saying that it might not be able to fine you or send you to jail for smuggling illegal aliens, but it can sure as hell take your car.

Border patrol agents in the San Diego sector seize an average of more than 165 cars and trucks each month. Most of these vehicles are confiscated at freeway checkpoints near San Clemente, on Interstate 5, and Temecula, on Interstate 15. But the border patrol also takes vehicles from people who have sped around border crossings or driven across the unfenced border on Otay Mesa. “We get ‘drive-throughs’ daily in a variety of vehicles” ranging from rusted-out hulks to brand-new vans and four-wheel drive trucks, said Wayne Kirkpatrick, a supervisory border patrol agent in San Ysidro. “We also seize vehicles from smugglers who are meeting aliens, say, at a prearranged location in Chula Vista.

“You learn to spot suspicious things, like a vehicle that’s practically scraping the ground even though there’s only one person it it who’s visible. Or sometimes you can actually look into the vehicles and see people lying on the floor or pretending to be asleep.” In one classic case, the owner of a car explained to an amused border patrol agent that the three people in his trunk had requested to ride there because they were bothered by freeway lights.

Among the border patrol’s recent seizures were a two-door AMC Gremlin that had eleven illegal aliens in it and a two-ton box truck with a false compartment in the front that harbored fifteen people. “The agents pace off the outside [of the cargo area] then pace off the inside,” explained Valderrama. “If the measurements don’t match up…” Another box truck was seized at San Clemente in February of this year when forty-three aliens were discovered hiding amid its load of new coffins. And in July, a 1976 Toyota Celica with eleven people in it raced across the border near the Otay Mesa port of entry and sped west on Highway 117. Border patrol agents gave chase, but they were falling behind when the Celica spun out of control and rolled over, injuring several of the illegal aliens inside.

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