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Nearly all 7.2 million workers use fraudulent Social Security numbers, which is a reason for the high incidence of identity theft each year: 10 million cases, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Yearly, the Social Security Administration receives eight to nine million earning reports from the IRS filed under names that don't match the Social Security numbers, according to the New York Times. The true owner of a number doesn't benefit, and the IRS has issued no penalties for mismatched numbers, though it is a felony to use a Social Security number falsely.

"It's basically a subsidy from migrant workers to the aggregate of American taxpayers," Douglas Massey, a Princeton sociology professor, told the Times.

Nor do these 7.2 million illegal workers take jobs away from U.S. citizens. A 2006 Pew Research Center study of 14 states with high immigration rates after 1990 showed "no consistent link between surging growth in immigration and declines in employment for Americans."

Many see hypocrisy in the immigration issue. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation in San Diego on July 5, Los Angeles Sheriff Leroy Baca said the American economy was "largely supported by guest-worker-type labor." To make it a felony to cross the border illegally "would double to triple the cost of everything we eat." The industries hiring the most illegal immigrants are agriculture, construction, and food services. The expense of paying for illegal immigration is the expense of keeping down the cost of food. In late September, the Republican senator from Idaho, Larry Craig, complained that tightening the border hurts growers in the West. "Fruit is not being picked; vegetables are not being harvested," he told the Times.

And so food prices will rise.

But the Border Patrol agent's arguments weren't vulnerable to logic, because everything arose from his single claim: "They're horrible people."

My visit to Border Field State Park came at the end of a ten-day period of looking into border issues, and everything I learned became filtered in memory through the agent's statement. Clearly, his beliefs weren't those of the entire Border Patrol, though it was distressing to see the agreement of the other two agents. What it emphasized for me was the complexity and divisiveness of the issue. A figure published in the Los Angeles Times several years ago indicated that Hispanics made up 40 percent of the Border Patrol. I expect many would dispute the officer's claim: "They're horrible people."

I wanted to learn about a group called Border Angels that, among other things, sets out water in the desert areas of the 66-mile San Diego sector. Another group, Water Station, takes care of 340 water stations in the El Centro sector, while the group Humane Border sees to more than 80 water stations in Arizona. Usually, gallon bottles of water are placed in blue plastic barrels topped with a blue flag at the end of a 30-foot pole or with a flashing red light like those used on bikes. Beginning in January 2002, the Border Angels also set up cold-weather stations in Cleveland National Forest in East County, with blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, food, and water. The water stations tend to be along power lines or paths that migrants have taken in the past. In Imperial Valley about 40 are located at the edge of the desert along Route 98 between Calexico and Interstate 8.

Placing water stations in the desert to help migrants became an issue after the Border Patrol's Operation Hold the Line in El Paso in 1993 and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego in October 1994. In the early '90s San Diego and El Paso had 70 percent of arrests along the 1952-mile southwest border, peaking at 800,000 in 1992. In Operation Gatekeeper, 14 miles of corrugated-steel panels were welded into a nearly continuous fence between the beach and Otay Mesa, supplemented in some areas by a bollard fence -- thick concrete poles five inches apart -- and a high steel fence bent back toward Mexico at the top to keep people from climbing over. In addition to the fencing, stadium lights were erected and motion-detecting sensors set in the ground. More Border Patrol agents were hired. In the San Diego sector, between 1994 and 1998, the number of agents increased from 1000 to 2200. Then the number was allowed to fall below 1400. Now it has increased again to about 1500, with more coming. President Bush promises to add 6000 agents by 2008. Of the 11,000 existing Border Patrol agents, 89 percent work along the U.S.-Mexican border. Agents in the San Diego sector are supplemented by about 500 National Guardsmen -- 1000 are promised -- who are meant to supply support services. At this date 74.8 miles of fence exists along the southern border. House Bill 4437, passed in December 2005, calls for 700 miles of new fencing, while a Senate proposal approved in May calls for 370.

The first year of Operation Gatekeeper saw 524,231 apprehensions in the San Diego sector. Five years later the number had dropped to 182,267. Fiscal year 2005 had 126,913 apprehensions. But the decrease in the San Diego and El Paso sectors didn't mean fewer illegal crossings, only that migrants were crossing elsewhere. The nine sectors of the southwest border in 1999 had a combined 1.5 million apprehensions, an increase of 20 percent over the first year of Gatekeeper, while in 2000 there were 1.64 million.

Nor is it certain how many people are involved, since it is hard to tell how many cross successfully or how many cross again after being deported. A study by Wayne A. Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, showed that 92 percent of Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally eventually succeed, while Sheriff Baca testified before the House committee that 73 percent of the "deported alien criminals" from Los Angeles come back a second time and that "well over 50 percent" return a third time. A computerized fingerprinting system of all ten digits called IDENT was introduced in the mid-1990s but isn't always used.

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