"We know the kind of people we catch here. They're horrible people." The Border Patrol agent's tone was no more than blandly informative. It was 7:00 p.m. July 16, and we were at the edge of the hill above the beach in Border Field State Park, in an area once called Friendship Park, now called Monument Mesa. Twenty feet away ran the fence dividing Mexico from the United States. To the left was the crowded Tijuana beach, to the right the nearly empty U.S. beach. Down by the water three Border Patrol jeeps had stopped as two agents questioned a group of four Hispanics. A nearby sign warned of "sewerage contaminated water," rip tides, and no lifeguards. Along the beach to the north a man on horseback ambled his way through a Sunday afternoon. The Border Patrol agent was talking to a pretty, dark-haired woman sitting cross-legged on a stone wall. On either side of him two other agents nodded their heads in agreement or added a word or two of clarification, but they never disagreed. I stood nearby.
About a dozen people were scattered across the park, including two family groups situated along the fence having picnics with friends and family members on the other side. They had lawn chairs, coolers, and umbrellas and passed food through small holes. On the Mexican side a row of parked cars lined the street by the bullring. Further to the right was a crowded street running parallel to the beach. The fence extended into the water less than 30 feet and consisted of upright metal strips with gaps wide enough for skinny kids to squeeze through and tease the agents to chase them.
"We have no leadership at the top," the Border Patrol agent said. "From the president on down, it's a vacuum. Politicians are afraid of the Latino vote. Eighty-eight percent of the American people want something done about immigration, and they won't do it." He explained that President Bush's plan to deal with illegal immigration, as well as the Senate and House plans, were too soft and would only make more problems. "They should militarize the whole border." This was a phrase he said several times, along with "We have no leadership at the top." The officers didn't realize the young woman was Olivia Schoeller, Washington bureau chief for the Berliner Zeitung. She had spent many years in the United States, having attended Bard College in the 1980s, and her accent was slight. Nor did they know that I was a reporter.
I'd come to Border Field State Park an hour earlier and wandered around talking to people. Only one Border Patrol agent had been in evidence, sitting in his jeep by the wall and near the pavilion so he could watch the park and beach at the same time. Then I had driven away. On my way out along the dirt road, four Border Patrol vehicles had sped past me, heading toward the beach. So I had turned around to follow them.
The agent said that when only one officer was on duty at the park, he sometimes had to drive down the hill to the beach. When this happened, "illegals" jumped the fence and hid in the men's bathroom. After a while, they would come out and mingle with people in the park. Consequently, every hour or so "a bunch of us come down here to check everyone's ID."
The agent continued to give his view of the situation to Olivia as his companions nodded in agreement. "They say we have 12 million undocumented aliens in this country. We think it's more like 20 million. They are bankrupting the states, draining the social services. They get welfare and free health care. They don't work. They don't contribute to the economy. They don't support our country or have our values. They're not Americans, even when they have citizenship. You see them at rallies waving Mexican flags. Amnesty was a terrible idea. These people who come over here each eventually bring over five family members. In ten years there will be 75 million of them, more than one quarter of the country. We must stop this right now. We all think that."
He went on to praise Operation Wetback, which he said President Truman had established in 1950. Actually, it began under President Eisenhower in 1954, when the Border Patrol, aided by municipal, county, state, and federal authorities swept through agricultural areas and Hispanic neighborhoods with a goal of 1000 arrests a day. Those detained were transported far into Mexico before being freed; many were put aboard ships that took them from Port Isabel, Texas, to Veracruz. After a year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed that 1.3 million illegal aliens had left the country, with half going voluntarily. Other sources put the number from less than a million to as high as 3.8 million. After opponents in the U.S. and Mexico protested "police state" tactics, Operation Wetback ended. Perhaps the INS ran out of money, or perhaps it was the outcry that arose when a few immigrants jumped ship and drowned. Stories differ. Whatever the cause, the agent said that many in the Border Patrol want to revive Operation Wetback. A Google search finds a similar call among a variety of white chauvinist and anti-immigration groups.
"What is a 'wetback'?" asked Olivia.
The Border Patrol officer's misinformation included more than the dates for Operation Wetback. The Pew Hispanic Research Center has shown that undocumented immigrants, about 56 percent coming from Mexico, make up 4.9 percent of the civilian labor force, or 7.2 million workers. Immigrants -- legal and illegal -- send $18 billion a year back to Mexico, making it the country's second largest source of income after its oil industry. Huge amounts of money are also sent to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Caribbean. In addition, illegal immigrants contribute about $7 billion a year in Social Security payments, and most will never see a penny in return. Billions more are withheld from their paychecks in taxes.