They’re still building roads out on Otay Mesa, about three miles north of the international border. The hot tar takes longer to set in the incredible heat. The smell hangs thick over the brown hillsides by the Corrections Corporation of America prison.
All around the facility, multiple coils of barbed wire loop and line the fences.
Supervised detainees in blue outfits — with “DETAINEE” printed on the back — clean the windows in the lobby.
The look of distrust on the faces of the workers at the prison is palpable. They watch you as if they’re ready for you to attack them. Tell a joke to cut the tension and no one laughs.
Even the employees are frisked on their way in.
The long walk to the little glass room to meet Kenneth Hathaway winds through a windowless, empty hallway. Finally, after a quarter mile up steps, around corners, and through a series of locked doors, a tall 18-year-old kid in a green “INMATE” outfit is sitting there with his hands interlocked in front of him. He has a goofy, aw-shucks look on his face. It’s an expression that says he knows he’s supposed to be embarrassed about his predicament — he is in prison, after all — but it also seems to say that he knows he’s better than a common criminal.
Hathaway’s hair is brushed forward so that it all points at his face. It accentuates his pointy features: a birdlike nose and sharp eyes, even. He’s tall, about six feet two, and there’s a space between his two front teeth.
Hathaway has served three months of his sentence. He was caught red-handed driving a vanload of aliens on I-8 near Campo. “It sucks being in prison,” he says, rather goofily.
Hathaway got lucky. Six months instead of the recommended 18. He also has to go back to Alaska to live for three years, supervised by his mother while he finishes high school and goes to vocational school to become a mechanic.
It’s Hathaway’s first time locked up, although he was on probation more than once as a juvenile.
How did Hathaway get involved in human smuggling?
“I moved in with my buddy from school,” he says, referring to his hometown of Reedsport, Oregon. “And this guy’s dad was, like, ‘Do you want to make a bunch of money?’ And I was, like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Because I was pretty much just bumming off them. So they said we’d go down to San Diego and make a bunch of money.”
Hathaway was working on a car, drinking a beer, when his buddy’s dad approached him with the idea. “He was, like, ‘There’s no risk involved,’ ” Hathaway says, with a look of ironic disbelief on his face that shows he knew there was a risk. “And they were making it sound all good. Like, ‘We’re going to take care of you. You’re going to make so much money. When you come back, you’re going to be set.’ Because that was the plan. Just go down there and make some money, and then come back to Oregon and be all right for a while. But instead, I lost everything. I lost my car. I lost my clothes. I lost my jewelry. I lost my money. I lost my tools. Man.”
Hathaway’s friend and his father are Hispanic, although Hathaway himself is white.
“So we drove down,” Hathaway says. “It was me and my cousin’s friend and my buddy and his dad. And we went to Mexico. And we went to their family’s house in TJ. And their family was, like, the ones who take the people across the border. They had a whole business operation going on down there, with, like, nice cars, 2007 Escalades and Lincoln Town Cars, with all these compartments built into them. And they had all these people working for them, doing the same thing.”
Hathaway was hired as a driver. “They had a bunch of drivers,” he says. “But I didn’t want to take anybody across the border because I knew that was dangerous. So instead, my job was to go back up in this van and then pick these people up who already came across, and then I was going to drive them up to San Diego so another guy could take them to Los Angeles.”
The deal was that Hathaway would drive first and get paid later. He was supposed to earn $400 per person that he carried.
“My friend was in one car, and I was in the van,” Hathaway says, “and the plan was for me to follow him and then stop when he told me.” The two were in constant contact on cell phones.
Hathaway has a knowing look in his eyes, and the way he uses his hands when he talks suggests a kind of conversational intelligence.
“But I stopped,” he says, “and all these people started jumping into the van. I was supposed to pick up 6 guys, but 13 got in. They couldn’t even sit down. They were all on top of each other. And I was, like, ‘Dude, I can’t do this.’ I was stressing.”
After Hathaway picked up his cargo and started driving, he was immediately followed by Border Patrol agents in a marked SUV.
“I saw the Border Patrol right away,” Hathaway says. “And I was, like, ‘Fuck!’ ”
Border Patrol followed Hathaway for 10 or 15 miles. They’d pull up alongside him and then pull in behind. Hathaway’s friend in the other car tried once or twice to get in front of the Border Patrol car and slow down, but then he gave up and drove away, leaving Hathaway to his fate.
“I’ve never heard from my friend since,” Hathaway says, shaking his head.
Hathaway’s parents split up when he was 4. His mother moved to Alaska with what Hathaway calls “some derelict.” He grew up in Alaska until he was 16, when he moved down to Oregon to live with his father. He got kicked out of his father’s house when he was 17.
Hathaway says that his friend’s family in Tijuana was moving at least 100 Mexicans across the border every month. “It was a family business, basically,” Hathaway says.
“They were pretty much like slaves until they’d pay off the money,” he adds. “And that’s how they talked about them. They’d say they owned these people if they couldn’t pay. And they’d keep them in these houses over here for months at a time if they couldn’t pay. Or the people over here would put up the money, but if they couldn’t pay right away, then they’d keep the people and make them work it off. It was $2000 to bring each one across.”
How They Get Across
“Since 1994, which is when Operation Gatekeeper began, it has become more difficult to cross the border,” says Rick Madueno. Madueno, 46, owns and operates Defense Investigative Agency. He interviews witnesses, evaluates crime scenes, develops theories, and coordinates with experts in the quest to discover what really happened when a crime has been committed.
“Back then,” Madueno says, “the fee was $300, which would be $100 for the guy who crosses you and then $200 for the guy that would drive you all the way to Los Angeles or other areas. Now the fee is anywhere from $1500 to $3500. And the fee depends on how you get crossed. You know, are you going to be walking through the pedestrian lanes at the port of entry with fake documents, or using stolen documents and you have a likeness to the person? Or are you going to climb the hills and run through the desert with a guide and then get picked up in a vehicle miles and miles inland? Or will you agree to be put into the trunk of a car to go through the port of entry?”
Madueno doesn’t use the term “coyote” to refer to people smugglers. “ ‘Coyote’ is a word that used to be used in the past,” Madueno says. “Now, pollero is the more popular word, because the illegals are called pollos, which is chickens. And a pollero is the one who carries or has pollos. And so, the lingo among the smugglers is, you know, ‘How many pollos do you have?’ It’s a trading game.”
Madueno’s worked on human-smuggling cases for over 13 years. “A lot of times they have recruiters in Mexico,” he says, “and they’ll be at a train station or a bus depot, and they’ll be asking you, ‘Do you want to go to the United States?’ And they gather all these people, the recruiters do, and then they go and sell them to the polleros, to the people who actually have an operation going to get them across. From there, you have your once-in-a-while kind-of pollero who does it only when he’s strapped for money, and then you have the organizations that have the whole network, from the recruiters to the guides to the drivers on this side of the border to the people who keep stash houses for piling up people so that when they have to go to L.A., they take as many as possible, to save on fuel and risk. Because you have checkpoints to go through. And they have spotters who drive up and down the checkpoint areas to see if they’re on or off, and then they relay that information to the drivers.”
“There’s a definite network, here as well as there,” defense attorney Don Levine explains. Levine, 55, has been doing federal alien-smuggling cases since 1985. Levine estimates that he’s defended at least 100 coyotes over the years. “The smugglers have operatives in, probably, I would guess, every major city in the United States. And they’re independent contractors, essentially. And they get a cut of the action for every illegal. You know, the drivers typically get $50 to $100 a head to drive them from point A to point B, and then another driver gets another amount to drive from point B to point C, and so on.”
Levine cocks his head as he talks, and it comes across as sincerity. Levine has graying hair, a graying beard and mustache, and a round face. He rolls up the sleeves of his red oxford shirt and carries a black leather bag full of files and papers.
“What happens is, you get all of these Mexican citizens that want to be brought across,” Levine goes on. “They don’t know how to do it. They come from the interior of Mexico, and they get to Tijuana or thereabouts, and they ask around, and that’s where your coyotes have runners and people that work for them to drum up business. So then the illegal alien is told, okay, so we’ll meet tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. at this park over here, or something. And they show up, and typically they’ll have a vehicle that’s been altered in some way.”
And how do they alter these vehicles?
“I remember one case where they actually did a type of bed on top of the engine,” Levine explains. “Basically just a steel plate on top of the engine. And they put a very tiny Hispanic lady in the engine compartment of a moving vehicle, if you can believe that. And I’ve seen a lot of cases where they stack people like cordwood in the back of a van. And many where they just shove as many as possible in the trunk. But the typical sort of thing is they build a compartment right next to or on top of the gas tank. And they run a rubber air hose from the compartment, and they will literally bolt the people in, so that it’s like a metal coffin. And some of these compartments are so tiny, if you were claustrophobic, you’d go nuts.”
Levine says the coyotes — polleros — often target minors to drive the altered vehicles because they know it’s difficult to prosecute minors in the United States.
“And then there’s also a lot of people that just make a run for it,” Levine says. “Over the fence, under the fence, around here, around there, and they don’t even pay a smuggler. But most of them, the way it works, they don’t pay any money up front. They agree to pay, and I think the going rate now is $3500. And the agreement is, there will be a series of transports to get them to wherever they’re going — Los Angeles, Michigan, Chicago. And they agree upon the amount, and if the family doesn’t come up with the money, I’ve actually seen smugglers go and kidnap the illegal alien and hold him for ransom. But that’s typically how it is, where the illegal alien doesn’t pay any money up front. Instead, they start working and making monthly payments.”
Madueno, who is of Mexican descent himself, spent six years in the Marine Corps as a military policeman. But he never saw anything there to compare with what he sees now working on human-smuggling cases.
“Many times, the illegals strike a deal with the polleros about getting crossed, and they’re not even told how they’re going to do it.” Madueno sounds incredulous. “I’m surprised, time and again, when I ask them what was the deal about how they were going to get across, and they don’t know. All they know is, they were going to be crossed.”
One Who Made It
Victor is from Guadalajara. He’s been in the United States since 1997. Back then, he walked across the border through East County.
“My cousin find a coyote for me,” Victor says, speaking good English but with a thick accent. Victor, who is 28 years old, stands about five feet six and has short dark hair and a youthful face. Today, he works as a busboy at a local restaurant.
“I think he find him here in San Diego,” Victor says. “And when I get to Tijuana, I call my cousin and talk to him, and he say somebody is going to go and pick up you and cross you the border.”
Victor met his coyote at a Tijuana hotel. “He didn’t even talk to me,” Victor says. “He was so serious. He was just, like, ‘Let’s go.’ And that’s it. He just wanted to cross me and get the money, and that’s it.”
Victor’s cousin paid $750 to have him crossed in 1997. “But it’s a lot more now,” Victor acknowledges. “Every time it’s more expensive, because it’s a lot more harder now.”
So what was the plan when Victor crossed? Did the coyote provide food and water?
“No, no,” he says. “It’s more organized now, you know. But back then they just encouraged us to have food and water.”
And how many people crossed with Victor?
“We started with 22 people and 1 coyote,” Victor says, “but we cross only 5.”
Seventeen couldn’t make it?
“Yeah,” he says. “They got caught by immigration.”
All at once?
“No, no,” he says. “We got chased a lot. The first time, they caught 5. The second time, like, 4. And it was like this, you know. They even caught the coyote. And I ran every time. I was lucky, you know. And then I had to wait for another coyote. And then, finally, another coyote came along, and I talked to him, and he said, ‘Sure, I cross you, and you give me $750.’ ”
How did Victor find another coyote?
“There’s paths out there,” he says. “But you have to know the way.”
And the paths go down cliffs and through rivers and over mountains?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Victor says. “Rivers, mountains, yeah. We walk for three days.”
And then what?
“Then we walk to a road, and a car pick us up and bring us to a house in San Diego,” says Victor.
And his cousin met him at the house and paid for him?
“Yeah,” he says. “That the way it work.”
One Who Got Caught
“I’ve got this gal. She’s just turned 24, but she looks 16,” Don Levine says, referring to one of his clients. “She’s got two little kids.
“So she worked at a couple of maquiladoras for so many years, at Mitsubishi and places like that. And they pay, like, nothing to assemble electronic parts or whatever. And so she’s working for, like, $50 a week, barely making ends meet and, in fact, working overtime to try to do that.
“But what happens is, when they work for, like, 24 months in a maquiladora, then they get fired because if they keep them longer than that, then they have to pay them benefits, and they don’t want to do that. So they let them go. It’s not like they have rights or anything.
“So then she goes to work for another maquiladora, Sony, I think it is, and she works there for another 24 months, and then they fire her. And then she goes to the next one. And everybody does it this way.
“And by now, her bills are outdistancing her income, and one of her coworkers comes up to her and says, ‘Hey, you can make a quick thousand by bringing a couple of illegal aliens across.’ So, you know, she gives in to the temptation. And of course she gets busted.
“Her two kids are living with relatives in Mexicali now. And I’m hoping to get her time served because she’s just so pathetic.”
“Border Patrol and CBP do the reactive cases,” Johnny Martin says, leaning on a desk in his striped shirt. Martin, the group supervisor of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit for the San Ysidro port of entry, is balding and has a graying mustache and friendly eyes. “They process what they catch,” he says. “They react to what’s happening. But what we do with ICE, we do the proactive stuff. We do investigations. We go after the organizations. Our goal is to take all the heads out of the organizations and to seize their assets.”
In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized nearly $6 million in assets and forfeitures from human-smuggling organizations. In 2006, nearly $3 million was seized.
One way the agency conducts investigations is to notice a pattern and follow where it leads. In a recent case called Blackjack, all the drivers were from Delano, California, and all the cars were rigged the same way for smuggling, namely, people were stowed in the passenger-side dashboard, with their upper bodies in the dash and their legs under the floorboards.
The 100 or so arrests related to Blackjack led to over 30 prosecutions and the seizure of a house and multiple bank accounts.
Rob Rogers looks like an ex–football player, thickset, with a puffy face and a reddish goatee. Rogers is the group supervisor in between the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry.
“Since Gatekeeper began, the smuggling has become a lot more organized,” Rogers says. “Where there used to be a lot of mom-and-pop organizations or a lot of people who would come up to the border and wait around and then just jump the fence and try — and maybe even try four or five times before they’d get through — they can’t do that anymore now. There’s double layers of fencing and lights and cameras and helicopters and Border Patrol agents on motorcycles and ATVs and horses. There’s so much infrastructure built up along the border now, we’ve kind of interrupted that migratory pattern where someone would come up and work for a couple of months and buy up a bunch of furniture and TVs and take them back south after the picking season, and then they’d come back up after the holidays. But that doesn’t happen anymore because we have so much organization now. But that’s also caused the smugglers to get a lot more organized. And now we’re seeing the drug cartels getting involved. They’ve noticed that the price for smuggling aliens has increased to the point that it’s pretty lucrative now. So the drug cartels are starting to charge these smuggling organizations a fee or a tax to work in their areas.”
Martin adds the following. “When you’re smuggling Mexicans, you’re talking maybe $3500. But when you start talking about Chinese, Koreans, Brazilians, the money starts going up. Koreans will get anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000. Chinese, maybe $60,000. You’re talking about huge amounts of money. More than you can make on narcotics, sometimes, so of course the drug cartels want a piece.”
And the Koreans and Chinese and Brazilians avail themselves of the Mexican smugglers because the Mexicans have the foot-guide networks and the drivers and they’ve timed the routes of the Border Patrol shift changes and they have a sophisticated business designed to overcome whatever the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and Border Patrol can throw in their way.
Lauren Mack, public affairs officer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is a small, redheaded woman who moves her hands a lot as she talks. She has an earnest, serious face behind thin-rimmed glasses.
“We’ve caught people from virtually every country in the world here,” Mack says, “in a smuggling venture, at one time or another. Every country.”
“There’s an interesting trend now in the smuggling of people,” Rogers says. “Used to be whole family groups crossing, when it used to be much easier, without the fencing. But small children can’t climb up over these fences, and they can’t be carried in backpacks because it’s too dangerous. So what we’re seeing now is Mom and Dad, sometimes, or at least Dad, crossing through East County or being smuggled across, and then these families entrusting their children to the smugglers in Tijuana to bring the children across with fake documents. Completely separated. And these are small children who maybe can’t speak yet, and the smugglers are being trusted to reunite the children with their parents on the north side.”
The families will do this often because they can’t afford a port-of-entry trip for the whole family, and the East County trip is still the cheapest way to go, usually about $1500.
But the young children who are caught without their parents can’t be sent back to Mexico. “We turn them over to the Mexican Consulate,” Martin says. “They have an officer at the port of entry. And they try to figure out where the parents are, and then maybe they turn the kids over to foster care in Mexico.”
“Imagine the separation that occurs in these families, though,” Rogers says.
Adds Mack, “The Mexican Consulate tracks the number of unaccompanied minors that they try to return and repatriate to family members every year, and it’s in the thousands.”
“We have trouble with Mexican officials too, often,” Martin says. “We’ll talk with them when we want to take something down on the south side. But we know, too, because of the corruption down there, in certain areas, they’ve gotten involved with the smuggling themselves. They’ll charge people in certain areas so they’ll look the other way.”
Four Immigration and Customs Enforcement units work in San Diego County, with about a dozen agents in each unit. Martin estimates that each unit might have 20 or so human-smuggling cases going at any one time. The cases might take as much as a year to investigate and obtain prosecutions, but Martin says the average case lasts about six months.
The investigators make it a point to stress that trafficking and smuggling are two different things. Martin says, “Trafficking is where people are being abused, forced into prostitution, treated as slaves. Smuggling is when the people are willing, and they know what they’re in for. Now, we have some trafficking cases here as well, and often the people don’t even know that they’re being trafficked. Often the alien doesn’t know, and the mule doesn’t know.”
Mack adds, “We hate to mislead the public. We’re talking about smuggling here today. And trafficking is a whole other thing.”
Mack has a collection of incredible photos depicting how people are smuggled across the border. In one picture, a man is sewn into the seat of a car. In another, a boy is stuffed and strapped into a dashboard. And in still another, a little girl is curled up inside a piñata.
“And now, boat smuggling is the new thing,” Mack says. “Well, it’s not new, but they’re doing it a lot more than they used to. Last year, we caught about 10 loads that way, and this year it’s already been about 20. And they’re doing it at night, bringing them over in old, rickety boats with inexperienced drivers.”
Out Along the Border
The original fence, which was finished in 1994 along the southern border of San Diego County, is made of welded corrugated metal landing-strip material from the Vietnam War. It’s only ten feet high at most, rusting in places, and has numbers spray-painted on it. It’s low, looks old, and is hardly daunting. This old fence seems to serve as more of a symbol than a deterrent.
About a tenth of a mile north of the old fence, the new fence looms and gleams. It’s 14 feet high, made of tightly woven iron mesh, and topped with coils of concertina wire.
The two fences run parallel for nine miles, from San Ysidro eastward.
“The environmental activists don’t see this fence as a good idea,” Alejandro Renteria says, squinting in the sun and scanning the fence line. Renteria, 30, is one of the public relations officers for the Border Patrol. His chiseled features and dark complexion make him look like a magazine model or movie star. “So,” Renteria goes on, “nine miles from here, the new fence just stops. The other fencing we have continues on out into East County, and then it stops out there. But we do have vehicle-barrier fencing out there. So people can walk over it, but you can’t just drive across. And now a big accusation that people are making is that we’re driving people out of here and making them risk their lives in the mountains, as opposed to just walking across the border here.”
In 2007, the Border Patrol took part in 93 rescues. And at least 22 immigrants died trying to make the trip through East County.
To the south of these two fences, the shanties and poverty and debris of suburban Tijuana — if you can call it “suburban” — slumps out over the dirt hills. Eventually, a few miles to the east, the industrialization of the Tijuana airport becomes visible over the fence to the south.
In between the two fences, in an area called no-man’s-land, camera towers and stadium-style lighting poles jut up out of the dirt. Each tower has eight cameras, four for daytime and four, with infrared capabilities, for nighttime. The cameras have a five-mile range.
Hopeful Mexicans will try to go over, under, or through the mesh fence. Panels of it are riddled with patches where cuts were made, areas near it show signs of digging, and Renteria explains that ladders are jerry-built with rebar poles to go over the top, despite the risk of injury from the concertina wire.
“We put a lot of the ladders we find into this area right here,” Renteria says, indicating a fenced-in power box just north of the secondary fence. He gets out of his truck and bends down to pick up a ten-foot-long metal pole with staggered L-shaped handholds and footholds soldered and duct-taped along its length. At the top of each ladder is a rebar hook to attach it to the top of the fence. A half dozen more of these “ladders” are piled up here.
“Some of these,” Renteria says, kicking at the ladders with his boot, “imagine if you were a heavier person trying to get up on this thing.”
Not to mention that after climbing to the top of the fence and negotiating the concertina wire (perhaps with the help of a draped blanket), you’d have to fall 14 feet down the other side.
“We try to make our arrests here, in no-man’s-land,” Renteria says. “Out there, north of the secondary fence, it gets a little harder to make arrests. Especially here, in California, with all the accusations of racial profiling.”
Massive open warehouses and construction sites gape just north of the secondary fence, about a mile east of the Otay port of entry. It’s easy to imagine someone making it over the fence and getting lost among this industrial sprawl.
But the narrow swath of no-man’s-land is restricted federal property.
“It’s very calm right now,” Renteria says, surveying the empty brown hills with heat radiating off them. “You know, people always talk about all this excitement and jumping around and grabbing people and being this crazy cowboy-type agent. But, for me, as an agent who believes in the mission, this is perfect. This means we’re getting our job done. We are preventing people from coming in here. We’re preventing any terrorist weapons from coming in.”
No-man’s-land is riddled with motion sensors in the ground. “If somebody crawls around out here, we know it,” Renteria says.
Over 2100 Border Patrol agents work in the San Diego sector.
Whereas Customs agents seem like police officers, Border Patrol agents are more like cowboys, out on the range, squinting in the sunlight under the brims of their hats. “We are still very old school,” Renteria agrees. “We’re out here in all-terrain vehicles and on horses and on bicycles. And there’s not a lot of home comforts for Border Patrol. No roofs over our heads or anything.”
Driving along in his white SUV, Renteria passes a colleague whose vehicle, along the side of the dirt road, can only be described as a “war wagon.”
“We had to outfit some of our vehicles like that because of all the stones getting thrown at us,” Renteria says. The war wagon is an SUV like Renteria’s, but it has thick iron cages over the windows. The cage across the windshield is equipped to slide up or down, depending on the danger. The back of the war wagon is retrofitted and reinforced as a holding area for arrested individuals.
Renteria explains that the purpose of many assaults and rock-throwing incidents is to distract the agents on patrol so that people might cross the fence in another area.
Over 300 assaults on Border Patrol agents in San Diego have been reported so far this year.
The work that Renteria and his Border Patrol coworkers do is so exciting that ABC has been filming a reality television show based on it. Border Security USA will begin airing later in the year.
All this evidence of desperation and ingenuity invites the naïve yet poignant question: What can Mexico do to make its people happier?
Renteria seems to have thought about this. “My parents were Mexican,” he says. “They’re U.S. citizens now. But, you know, Mexico is a very rich country. There’s a lot of money in Mexico. There’s a lot of oil. But it’s all owned by the government. And they don’t have social services to help their people. They refuse to do it. And that’s why people come chasing the American Dream. Where, if you think about it, if they would really use their resources, there wouldn’t have to be an American Dream. It would be a Mexican Dream.”
The World’s Busiest Border Port
Between October 1, 2007, and May 31, 2008, Customs and Border Protection apprehended 31,144 inadmissible aliens at the six land border ports of entry in San Diego and Imperial Counties. That’s 130 inadmissible aliens caught every day. That’s 22 percent of all the inadmissible aliens apprehended in the United States.
Tens of thousands were caught, but it’s impossible to speculate how many aliens got through.
Stuffed into compartments in dashboards and above engine blocks, braving the heat or cold of a hundred-mile hike through treacherous mountains and desert, climbing up makeshift ladders and shimmying over barbed-wire fencing, hundreds of thousands of people risk their lives in the effort to illegally cross the border from Mexico into the United States.
And at a going rate of $1500 to $3500 for every Mexican citizen brought across — or perhaps 10 to 20 times that amount for natives of other countries — the incentive to help others expatriate here is strong indeed.
Human smugglers — the coyotes or polleros — work in increasingly sophisticated networks and, by more and more ingenious means, to thwart the renewed efforts of U.S. agents.
In 1994, the Clinton administration instituted Operation Gatekeeper, adding fences along the border, establishing an immigration court, and installing a new computer system to deal with repeat immigration offenders.
In 2003, in an effort to streamline operations and to further shore up our national boundaries, the Department of Homeland Security restructured the old Immigration and Naturalization Service into two dedicated units. The criminal investigators and roving special agents became part of a new investigative agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the officers at the borders formed Customs and Border Protection.
“We now have a unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security,” claims Vincent Bond. Bond is the public affairs officer for Customs and Border Protection. “It’s now a streamlined agency concept,” he says. “It increases the focus and information sharing. It provides the synergistic ability to more effectively protect the nation’s borders.”
Bond is standing in a room full of windows, two stories above the main booths at the San Ysidro port of entry. “This is always worth a thousand words,” he says.
Spread out below are hundreds of cars inching through 24 lanes of traffic. The lines extend as far as the eye can see, beyond a clutch of Tijuana buildings and over a hill. The international border — marked by a thick dotted yellow line — cuts across the road about 100 yards away.
“It’s like this every day,” Bond says. “And you can see we have all 24 lanes open. This is it. This is as good as it gets.”
The wait time to cross through the border right now is about one hour. It’s midmorning on a summer Friday.
Bond estimates that “50,000 to 60,000 cars or more” will pass beneath this room today. And 25,000 to 35,000 pedestrians will walk through the port in the same 24-hour period. The long line of people standing and waiting is visible from here, just off to the left of the road.
This is the busiest land border port in the United States, and, Bond adds, “It’s most likely the busiest land border port in the world.”
Bruce Ward is one of the assistant port directors at the San Ysidro port of entry. He’s dressed in police blues and carries a gun.
“One in every eight people who comes to the United States, whether it’s by land, air, or sea, comes through here,” Ward says, nodding his head and raising his eyebrows. Ward wears thin-rimmed glasses and has a narrow face.
In between the line of the international border and the main booths of the port, roving canine units and Anti-Terrorism and Contraband Enforcement teams walk among the idling cars. Cameras, detectors, and stanchions line the 24 lanes.
This area is known as “preprimary.” About 40 percent of all apprehensions and seizures at the port occur in preprimary.
The canine teams and officers pulse and surge through the lines of traffic at random intervals.
“We have to be unpredictable,” Ward says, with a matter-of-fact tone to his voice. “Because the spotters for the smugglers are out there watching us right now.”
The San Diego field office employs 1500 officers to cover six ports of entry in California along the land border.
“We were number one in the United States for the seizure of marijuana,” Ward says. “Number one for methamphetamine. Number three for cocaine, and number three for heroin in the U.S.”
Last year, 140,000 pounds of narcotics were seized here.
And then the pride in Ward’s voice turns up a notch as he says, “Last year, 70 percent of all the aliens caught in the United States at land border ports were caught right here.”
That’s 42,000 undocumented migrants caught attempting to come into the United States illegally in 2007.
“Of those, we presented 511 criminal prosecutions to the U.S. attorney,” Ward says. “And we had a 98 percent conviction rate.”
For the other 41,489 people, administrative actions were taken against them. According to federal criminal statutes, U.S. Code Title 8, Sections 1324, 1325, and 1326, first-time undocumented aliens who show no criminal record of any kind are almost always sent back to their home country. This is called a “voluntary return.”
Second- and third-time offenders with no other criminal record may also be voluntarily returned, although they may face up to six months in prison.
Illegals with criminal histories may face up to 20 years, depending on their outstanding offenses.
Smugglers will face varying penalties, up to 10 years, depending upon the number of aliens carried or guided, the level of endangerment the aliens faced during transit, and the smuggler’s specific role. The minimum penalty for bringing one or two aliens across the border is 3 years. The minimum penalty for three or more aliens is 5 years.
Transiting aliens on this side of the border — from San Diego to Los Angeles, say — carries a penalty of up to 5 years. Harboring aliens in a safe house also carries up to a 5-year penalty.
“In fiscal year 2005, we caught 64,000 undocumented aliens here,” Ward says. “In 2006, it was 48,000. And last year, it was 42,000. And my take on it is, we’re getting better. There are more tunnels going around and under us and more apprehensions in boats and more apprehensions out along the border, all because of the job we’re doing here.”
Vincent Bond illustrates how this works with an effective metaphor. “It’s like a balloon,” he says. “You squeeze it smaller in one place, and the other places get bigger.”
And Ward adds, “It’s the same with Border Patrol. When they shut down a corridor, it puts additional strain on us.”
Ever since the new border fence was built in 2006, the port of entry has become more of a focus for smugglers.
“But with Operation Gatekeeper, when they put this big fence up all around us,” Bond says, “it made it so that we could build the America’s Mall. We used to have undocumented people running through there. But now we have homes built all around the area. When the fence went up, the stability went up, and that land all of a sudden became valuable land for expensive homes and for the mall, which is literally right up against the fence.”
Ward reminisces a moment as he surveys the lines of cars. “I remember one night before Gatekeeper when I was working pedestrian,” Ward says, “and they called me over and there were five of us. And there were 200 aliens lined up on the Mexican side, arms locked, and they just ran north. And we were just there grabbing what we could. It was crazy.”
Ward laughs, a single “ha,” and shakes his head.
“You don’t see that anymore,” says Bond, smiling grimly.
Ward and Bond head down a hallway and take an elevator to ground level. Cars coming through the primary booths drive slowly past. Through a locked door, they’ve entered the watch commander’s office.
The watch commander’s office at the port of entry is encased in bulletproof glass and contains multiple monitors, computers, and immigration officers.
“This is basically the nerve center of the port,” Ward says. All decisions about opening and closing lanes, 911 situations, bomb threats, and other crises are run through this office. It’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Here’s an interesting statistic,” Ward says. “More 911 calls are made from this office than from any other single place in the United States. We have births, deaths, shootings, robberies and, of course, a lot of people who come here for medical treatment. We call 911 an average of 10 to 15 times a day.”
Ward says the port employs 50 medical first responders and 5 emergency medical technicians.
Deaths, shootings, robberies… Births?
“Last year we delivered eight babies,” Ward says, without changing the tone of his voice. “Right out there in the middle of the lanes. The last one was born in lane ten.”
And Bond adds, “We’re strict, but we have to be compassionate too.”
Compassionate, and also vigilant. Ward estimates that three to five times per day his team at the port will deal with someone who the computer says is “armed and dangerous.”
“We take that very seriously,” Ward says, “and we take those people down at gunpoint.”
The last shooting at the port was a couple of years ago, and Ward says that in his 23 years at the port he’s witnessed “seven or eight” shootings.
“This port is the anomaly,” Ward says. “There’s no other port like it. You could visit other ports and think that they’re boring compared to this.”
And why is that?
“We have a huge maquiladora population on the other side of the border,” Ward speculates. “Sony, Panasonic, Sanyo, Toyota, all those. They have assembly plants down there and sister plants on this side. So we get a lot of Japanese, Koreans, and U.S. citizens working down there and living on this side. Also, San Diego and Los Angeles are huge cities. Tijuana is a big city. This is a major thoroughfare for coming into the United States.”
Stepping out into the brightness and heat, among the idling cars, Bond dons a wide-brimmed white hat to keep the sun off his face. “It’s the Vince Bond hat,” says one of his coworkers, with a smile. “You can see him from a long way off.”
The primary inspection booths could well be tollbooths except for the state-of-the-art computer system inside. By the time a car reaches the booth, its license plate has been read and run through a database that gives information about the car and who might be driving it.
“Officers don’t sit in the booths for an entire eight-hour shift,” Bond says. “They’re moved throughout the port all day long to keep them mentally alert.”
A man on a white moped pulls up.
“Where were you born, sir?” the inspection officer asks.
“Los Angeles, California,” the man says. He’s a dark-skinned Hispanic fellow in his 20s.
“What were you doing in Mexico?” the officer asks.
“I live here,” the man answers.
As they talk, the officer keeps glancing at the computer screen. He sees something he doesn’t like.
“We’re going to need you to pull around over here with me, sir,” the officer says, as he swings a gate shut behind the man and escorts him to secondary.
“There was a security problem with him,” Ward says. “The computer indicated that we should look into his background a little more, so we’re going to run some more checks on him. He could have a warrant. He could have a prior history. But because he’s a U.S. citizen, the privacy act dictates that we can’t tell you anything specific about him.”
The man is still straddled on his moped in secondary an hour later, awaiting his fate.
Ward says that 1 in every 353 cars in each lane has some sort of violation and needs to be sent to secondary.
Secondary is essentially a parking lot with a series of booths that is situated a hundred yards after primary. There, questionable travelers are inspected more closely by teams of officers.
“We do an average of 13 to 15 drug loads every day,” Ward says. “Our record is 28 drug loads for a 24-hour period. And by ‘drug loads’ I mean over 100 pounds. We seize 100 to 150 cars per month for drug smuggling and alien smuggling.”
As dozens of border officers rove and inspect around him, Ward surveys the scene.
“You know, a lot of people in San Diego don’t know what goes on down here,” Ward says. “They think we’re gate guards.”
And then Ward understates the case dramatically. “It’s a busy job,” he says.