"How did you get that many?"
"I made them think I was scared."
"You wanted them to worry that you were so nervous you might pull the trigger?"
"Exactly. I got on the radio and called for help. 'You better get down here fast,' I said. They told me to march them out single file. 'Forget it!' I said. 'I'm not letting these guys up. Get over here.' Everything turned out fine."
Then, with a wistful tone to her voice, she said, "We used to arrest such nice people back then."
"Nice people? As opposed to today?"
"Yeah. Things have changed. I used to see a lot of calluses on the hands of the aliens, some were even carrying farm tools. They were coming for work. But today, there seems to be more of a criminal element."
"Yeah, that. About one in ten of our apprehensions is for drugs."
To help uncover drugs, the Temecula station has ten sniffing dogs. They are assigned to agents who care for them as family pets in their homes. Most of those homes are in Temecula or the surrounding area. This is one reason it's a desirable assignment. Agent Gonzalez said that their agents tend to have high seniority in the Border Patrol.
"Is that because this is a good place to work?"
"It may not be as interesting as at the border, but it's a good place to live. A nice community for families."
I asked about one of his memorable experiences. He said he used to work in Chula Vista when many illegal migrants were running along the freeway. "It was really dangerous," he said, "and people were getting killed. Late one night I heard tires squeal and a thump, and I knew somebody had been hit. I ran toward the sound and found a body crumpled in the middle of the freeway. So I straddled it, and with a flashlight in each hand I waved down motorists. I didn't want cars, you know, to keep hitting him. I was almost hit a couple of times. It was really scary. And then I felt this movement between my legs. I looked down and saw he was crawling away. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I'm getting out of here!' And I said, 'That's a good idea.' "
As Agent Gonzalez told me this story, we were in one of their new GMC Yukons, heading from the Border Patrol office in Temecula toward the I-15 checkpoint. He was going to show me inside the trailers parked alongside the freeway, which house, among other things, a bank of video monitors enabling agents to watch stopped cars (when the wait goes over ten minutes, they shut down operations to allow traffic to "flush out"). Before we got to the checkpoint, though, we had to turn around to get in the northbound lanes. As we exited at Rainbow Valley Road, I thought again of alternate routes.
"Two or three times a year," he said, "we put agents on every alternate route, and then our apprehension rates jump about 500 percent."
Dr. Wayne Cornelius, director for the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, UCSD, confirms my theory that smugglers have just gotten smarter. "Smugglers know how to get around the checkpoints," he said. "They take alternate routes, or they simply order their human cargo to start walking. They give them general directions about how they should navigate through the surrounding territory, and then they pick them up on the other side. With no cargo, there is no risk to them. This has been the standard MO for some time. The people they're likely to catch are the first-timers who simply don't have adequate information. In this day and age, it's inconceivable that anybody that's either experienced themselves or comes from a family in which one or more members have already migrated illegally would not know about those checkpoints."
I asked him why he thought the apprehension rates were down. "The Border Patrol claims it's the deterrence after Operation Gatekeeper. That's the crux of their argument. But they have absolutely no evidence for this. In fact, what's been happening is that traffic has been pushed farther and farther east. People are now crossing in Arizona, where apprehension rates are up. They're doing an end run around the San Diego sector and then making their way west. Also, apprehensions are down because the American economy is soft. The demand for migrant labor is down, and that's the main reason for the decline."
I mentioned Feltner-Redondo's observation that she had seen a change in the type of persons attempting to get across the border illegally.
"Listen," he said, "when I first began studying illegal Mexican migration to the United States, which was back in 1974, I was hearing the same arguments from the Border Patrol. The restrictionist groups are always claiming that in the good old days we had a better quality of immigrants. They always claim that the preceding cohort of migrants were easier to work with. They were always no problem, quiescent. And this talk about being infiltrated by a criminal element -- it's simply recycled.
"What has been the actual change? Yes, there have been fewer farmers coming, because there aren't as many farmers in Mexico. The bulk of the population of the migrant stream is now coming from urban areas. Nonagricultural backgrounds, seeking jobs in U.S. cities. So there are fewer people coming through with calluses on their hands and hoes over their shoulders. And the other big change is that there are children and whole families that are part of the flow, because so much of the migration is now for purposes of family unification, as well as women seeking their own employment opportunities on the U.S. side. What you've got is a more diverse flow. But there's no evidence that there's a higher percentage of people with criminal propensities today than there was a generation ago."
Agent Feltner-Redondo and Dr. Cornelius agree that the migrants are not the poorest of the poor, not people with starving families back home. They migrate not for survival, but to get ahead with better jobs. "As far back as the middle of the '70s," Cornelius continued, "when I started doing surveys of this population, there were as few as 5 percent who were unemployed at the time they migrated. They had some sort of work, but it wasn't enough to maintain a family or to maintain a decent standard of living; it wasn't enough to buy or build a house. And today there is between an eight-to-one and a ten-to-one wage differential between similar jobs in the U.S. and Mexico. For people to stay in Mexico and never try to enter the U.S. labor market, they're condemning themselves and their family to a substandard living."