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June 12, 1998

Immigrants Avoiding Beefed-Up Patrols To Cross Mexican Border

By Michelle Koidin

CALEXICO - When federal agents beefed up patrols near San Diego, they figured fewer illegal immigrants would cross through the wind-swept mountains or the sweltering desert to the east.

But it hasn't worked out that way.

Undocumented immigrants are now crossing from Mexico into southeast California's sprawling desert and irrigated farmland - and they're doing it in record numbers, sometimes fatally.

Many immigrants climb over a flimsy chainlink fence and dash through vast fields where everything from watermelon to carrots is grown.

Sometimes groups of five or six young men dive face-first into thigh-high wheat plants to try to hide from the U.S. Border Patrol. Others end up in the swift All-American Canal, where more than a dozen illegal border crossers have died this year.

When Operation Gatekeeper was introduced nearly four years ago, San Diego had long been the preferred crossing spot of the 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) U.S.-Mexi-co border. The policy has increased the number of Border Patrol agents around San Diego to 2,300 from 800 in October 1994.

The effect could be seen on a recent night in Calexico, a town of about 25,000 across the border from the Baja California state capital of Mexicali. Border Patrol agents detained a record 522 people during one eight-hour shift.

"We're apprehending in two days as much as we were apprehending in a month two or three years ago,'' said Tom Wacker, chief patrol agent of the El Centro sector, which encompasses the irrigated Imperial Valley and surrounding desert.

In response, 87 Border Patrol agents have been added to the region since October to boost its ranks to 299, and 25 more agents are expected to arrive in July. Another 140 agents from other sectors were sent to temporarily work the 72-mile (115-kilometer) line that separates Imperial County from Mexico.

El Centro agents detained more than 115,000 illegal immigrants in the first six months of fiscal year 1998. That makes it the second-busiest crossing point in the country, behind Tucson, Arizona. They predict 240,000 arrests for the year, compared with 146,000 last year.

For its part, San Diego has seen a 17-year low of about 284,000 detentions last fiscal year. That compares with about 531,000 arrests in 1993, before Operation Gatekeeper started. San Diego dropped from 43 percent of apprehensions nationwide to 20 percent.

As the illegal immigrants move east, the government's resources are heading in that direction, too. Imperial County agents are getting more high-tech equipment, including five infrared night scopes to add to the five they already have.

On a recent night, agent Matt Shultz sat in his truck and used a joystick to manipulate a night scope mounted on the truck's roof. All the while, he kept his eyes glued on a TV monitor in the front seat. Seeing movement on the screen, he described the migrants' location to fellow agent Tony McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, flashlight in hand, walked briskly through knee-high alfalfa looking for the group. He aimed his flashlight in all directions and eventually found the men lying down in the field. With hardly a word uttered, they got up, brushed themselves off and climbed into a Border Patrol van.

The scene is repeated over and over. But it's not always so peaceful.

The All-American Canal runs for about 35 miles (55 kilometers) along the border from Yuma, Arizona, to west of Calexico. In Calexico, there are bridges on which to cross. On the outskirts, the only options are crossing small, electricity-producing dams, protected by fences, or getting in the water.

Twenty-one illegal crossers have drowned so far this year, most of them in the All-American Canal. A few died in the heavily polluted New River.

Twenty-two more died this year in San Diego County, most of them from exposure in the cold mountains east of the city. And summer, which means 120-degree Fahrenheit (49-degree Celsius) afternoons in the desert, has yet to come.

Immigrant rights activists have denounced Gatekeeper as immoral because it puts migrants in harm's way.

"What it has done more than anything is to move the migrant stream out of the public eye and into the mountains and the deserts,'' says Claudia Smith, head of California Legal Rural Assistance. "Yes, it has deterred some, but by and large, it has just provoked migrants to take bigger and bigger risks to get across undetected.''