America's Border: Who Left the Door Open?

September 20, 2004

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Despite all the talk of homeland security, sneaking into the U.S. is scandalously easy—and on the rise. Millions of illegal aliens will pour across the U.S.-Mexican border this year, many from countries hostile to America. TIME looks at the damage, the dangers and the reasons the U.S. fails to protect itself.

 The next time you pass through an airport and have to produce a photo ID to establish who you are and then must remove your shoes, take off your belt, empty your pockets, prove your laptop is not an explosive device and send your briefcase or purse through a machine to determine whether it holds weapons, think about this: In a single day, more than 4,000 illegal aliens will walk across the busiest unlawful gateway into the U.S., the 375-mile border between Arizona and Mexico. No searches for weapons. No shoe removal. No photo-ID checks. Before long, many will obtain phony identification papers, including bogus Social Security numbers, to conceal their true identities and mask their unlawful presence.

The influx is so great, the invaders seemingly trip over one another as they walk through the old copper-mining town turned artist colony of Bisbee (pop. 6,000), five miles from the border. Having eluded the U.S. border patrol, they arrive in small groups of three or four, larger contingents of more than a dozen and sometimes packs of a hundred. Worried citizens who spot them keep the Bisbee police officers and Cochise County sheriff's deputies busy tracking down all the trespassing aliens. At night as many as 100 will take over a vacant house. Some crowd into motel rooms, even storage-compartment rental units. During the day, they congregate on school playgrounds, roam through backyards and pass in and out of apartment buildings. Some assemble at the Burger King, waiting for their assigned drivers to appear. Sometimes stolen cars are waiting for them, keys on the floor. But most continue walking to designated pickup points beyond Bisbee, where they will ride in thousands of stolen vehicles, often with the seats ripped out to accommodate more human cargo, on the next leg of their journey to big cities and small towns from California to North Carolina.

The U.S.'s borders, rather than becoming more secure since 9/11, have grown even more porous. And the trend has accelerated in the past year. It's fair to estimate, based on a TIME investigation, that the number of illegal aliens flooding into the U.S. this year will total 3 million—enough to fill 22,000 Boeing 737-700 airliners, or 60 flights every day for a year. It will be the largest wave since 2001 and roughly triple the number of immigrants who will come to the U.S. by legal means. (No one knows how many illegals are living in the U.S., but estimates run as high as 15 million.)

Who are these new arrivals? While the vast majority are Mexicans, a small but sharply growing number come from other countries, including those with large populations hostile to the U.S. From Oct. 1 of last year until Aug. 25, along the southwest border, the border patrol estimates that it apprehended 55,890 people who fall into the category described officially as other than Mexicans, or OTMs. With five weeks remaining in the fiscal year, the number is nearly double the 28,048 apprehended in all of 2002. But that's just how many were caught. TIME estimates, based on longtime government formulas for calculating how many elude capture, that as many as 190,000 illegals from countries other than Mexico have melted into the U.S. population so far this year. The border patrol, which is run by the Department of Homeland Security, refuses to break down OTMs by country. But local law officers, ranchers and others who confront the issue daily tell TIME they have encountered not only a wide variety of Latin Americans (from Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Nicaragua and Venezuela) but also intruders from Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Russia and China as well as Egypt, Iran and Iraq. Law-enforcement authorities believe the mass movement of illegals, wherever they are from, offers the perfect cover for terrorists seeking to enter the U.S., especially since tighter controls have been imposed at airports.

Who's to blame for all the intruders? While the growing millions of illegal aliens cross the border on their own two feet, the problem is one of the U.S.'s own making. The government doesn't want to fix it, and politicians, as usual, are dodging the issue, even though public-opinion polls show that Americans overwhelmingly favor a crackdown on illegal immigration. To be sure, many citizens quietly benefit from the flood of illegals because the supply of cheap labor helps keep down the cost of many goods and services, from chicken parts to lawn care. Many big companies, which have an even clearer stake in cheap labor, aggressively fend off the enforcement of laws that would shut down their supply of illegal workers.

The argument is getting stronger, however, that this is a short-sighted bargain for the U.S. Beyond the terrorism risks, Washington's failure to control the nation's borders has a painful impact on workers at the bottom of the ladder and, increasingly, those further up the income scale. The system holds down the pay of American workers and rewards the illegals and the businesses that hire them. It breeds anger and resentment among citizens who can't understand why illegal aliens often receive government-funded health care, education benefits and subsidized housing. In border communities, the masses of incoming illegals lay waste to the landscape and create costly burdens for agencies trying to keep public order. Moreover, the system makes a mockery of the U.S. tradition of encouraging legal immigration. Increasingly, there is little incentive to play by the rules.

In the aftermath of 9/11, illegal immigration slowed dramatically for two years. Now it has turned up again. The chronic reason is a Mexican economy unable to provide jobs with a living wage to a growing population. But those who live and work along the border say there is another, more immediate cue for the rush. In a speech on immigration policy last January, George W. Bush proposed "a new temporary-worker program that will match willing foreign workers with willing American employers when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs." The President said his program would give three-year, renewable work visas "to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States." In Mexico that statement was widely interpreted to mean that once Mexican citizens cross illegally into the U.S., they would be able to stay and eventually gain permanent residence. Even though the legislation shows no signs of getting through Congress this year, a run to the border has begun. Ranchers, local law officers and others say that is the story they have heard over and over from border crossers. Rancher George Morin, who operates a 12,000-acre spread a few miles from the border, tells TIME, "All these people say they are coming for the amnesty program. [They] have been told if they get 10 miles off the border, they are home free."

The border patrol, by nature an earnest and hard-working corps, is no match for the onslaught. From last October through Aug. 25, it apprehended nearly 1.1 million illegals in all its operations around the U.S. But for every person it picks up, at least three make it into the country safely. The number of agents assigned to the 1,951-mile southern border has grown only somewhat, to more than 9,900 today, up from 8,600 in 2000.

Given that the crisis of illegal immigration bridges the two main issues in the presidential campaign—the economy and national security—one might think that the candidates would pound their podiums with calls for change. But that's not the case so far. Bush has reaffirmed his pledge for an immigration policy that would provide worker's permits for aliens who find jobs, and John Kerry has promised to propose legislation that would lead to permanent residence for many illegal-alien workers. Neither candidate has called for imposing serious fines on the people who encourage illegal immigration: corporate employers.

On the Mexican side of the border, President Vicente Fox has actively encouraged the migration. He made his goal clear in 2000 when he called for a fully open border within 10 years, with "a free flow of people, workers" moving between the two countries. When U.S. opposition to the proposal intensified after 9/11, Fox sought the same goal through the back door. He pushed U.S. businesses and city and state governments to accept as legal identification a card called a matricula consular, issued by Mexican consulates. That has allowed illegals to secure driver's licenses and other forms of identification and open bank accounts. Earlier this year Fox pushed U.S. bankers to make it easier for Mexicans working here—some of them legally but most illegally—to ship U.S. dollars back home. Because of the exploding illegal population, the money sent back represents the third largest source of revenue in Mexico's economy, trailing only oil and manufacturing. That figure reached a record $ 13 billion last year.

The current border-enforcement system has fostered a culture of commuters who come and go with some hardship but little if any risk of punishment. Thousands cross the U.S.-Mexico border multiple times. Under immigration law, they could be imprisoned after the second offense. But no one is. Nor on the third, fourth or fifth. In fact, almost never. When asked whether Homeland Security would initiate criminal proceedings against a person who, say, is picked up on four occasions coming into the country illegally, a border-patrol representative said if it did, the immigration legal system would collapse. Said the spokeswoman: "Because there's such a large influx of people coming across, if we're to put the threshold at four and send them up [to Tucson, Ariz., or Phoenix, Ariz., for processing], we'd be sending ... too many people, and it would overwhelm the immigration system."

People who live and work on the Arizona border know all about being overwhelmed.

Living in the War Zone

When the crowds cross the ranches along and near the border, they discard backpacks, empty Gatorade and water bottles and soiled clothes. They turn the land into a vast latrine, leaving behind revolting mounds of personal refuse and enough discarded plastic bags to stock a Wal-Mart. Night after night, they cut fences intended to hold in cattle and horses. Cows that eat the bags must often be killed because the plastic becomes lodged between the first and second stomachs. The immigrants steal vehicles and saddles. They poison dogs to quiet them. The illegal traffic is so heavy that some ranchers, because of the disruptions and noise, get very little sleep at night.

John Ladd Jr., a thoughtful, soft-spoken rancher just outside Bisbee, gives new meaning to the word stoic. He is forced to work the equivalent of several weeks a year to repair, as best he can, all the damage done to his property by never-ending swarms of illegal aliens. "Patience is my forte," he says, "but it's getting lower." The 14,000-acre Ladd ranch, in his mother's family since the 1800s, is right on the border. Ladd and his wife and three sons as well as his father and mother have their homes there. The largely flat, scrub-covered piece of real estate, with its occasional groves of cottonwoods, spiny mesquite and clumps of sacaton grass and desert broom, seems to offer few places to hide. But the land is laced with arroyos in which scores of people can disappear from view. Ditches provide trails from the border to Highway 92, a distance of about three miles. That is the route that Ladd says 200 to 300 illegals take every night as they enter the U.S. They punch holes in the barbed-wire border fence and then tear up the many fences intended to separate the breeding cattle—Brahmin, Angus and Hereford—that divide the Ladd land.

Ladd doesn't blame the border patrol, most of whose officers, he says, are doing all they can under the circumstances. Indeed, apprehensions of illegals in Arizona have soared from 9% of the nation's total in 1993 to 51% this year. "I have real heartache for the agents who are really working," he says. "They track down the [smugglers], and the judges let them off, and they get a free trip back to Mexico, where they can start all over." The border-patrol agents, Ladd feels, "are responsible guys in a hypocritical bureaucracy."

Border crossing at the Ladd ranch is so flagrant that sometimes the illegals arrive by taxi. A dirt road parallels the border fence and the Ladd property for several miles, in full view of border-patrol electronic lookout posts that ceased functioning long ago. When drivers reach an appropriate location, passengers pile out and run through one of the many holes in the fence and make their way across the ranch.

These gaps present their own special problem. On the other side are Mexican ranches whose cattle wander onto Ladd's. "I'm up to 215 Mexican cows that I've put back into Mexico," he says. "I've got a dual-citizen friend—he's Mexican and American—works on this side for Phelps Dodge [Mining Co.], but he's got a ranch over at the San Jose Mountain. So I call him, and then he calls the Mexican cattle inspector. Then that guy meets me at the border and then coordinates the cows getting back to the rightful owners in Mexico." Ladd acknowledges that his do-it-yourself cattle diplomacy is "breaking both countries' laws." How so? "[In] the United States, you're supposed to quarantine any Mexican cattle for 30 days, and they test them for disease and everything else. What the problem is, there isn't enough cattle inspectors to do that, and then they don't have a holding corral anymore to do that."

Why does he spend so much time returning strays? So his counterparts in Mexico will return the favor because some of his cattle amble across the border through the same holes. "The whole reason that I started doing this for the Mexican ranchers was to show 'em, 'Yeah, I'm honest. I'm going to give you yours back, so you give me mine.' And it's worked. But the whole story is that I've spent money on long-distance and talked to everybody from the Boundary Commission to USDA to border patrol to customs and everybody else, and I said, 'You need to do something with your international fence.'" He's still waiting.

While the Department of Homeland Security seemingly lacks the money to secure the border, it does have money to spend in quixotic ways. In a $ 13 million experimental program started in July, the border patrol will not just drop illegal Mexican aliens at the border but actually fly them, at taxpayer expense, into the heart of Mexico. The theory is that it will discourage them from making the trek north again. But as one illegal, a Dallas construction worker who was among the 138 aboard the first flight, told a Los Angeles Times reporter, "I will be going back in 15 days. I need to work. The jobs in Mexico don't pay anything."

The plight of Jim Dickson, a hospital administrator in Bisbee, is summed up with one image. It's an ambulance that pulls into tiny Copper Queen Community Hospital and discharges illegal aliens injured in an auto accident. The border-patrol officers—on orders from Washington—have refused to take them onto the hospital property after taking them into custody. Instead, the officers have called an ambulance for the injured. If the officers were to arrive at the hospital to make their drop-off, then the border patrol (make that the U.S. government) would be responsible for paying the medical bill. And that's something the Federal Government (make that Congress) will not do. Instead, the government stiffs Dickson, 56, the genial CEO of the Copper Queen, a hospital that dates back to the turn of the previous century, when Bisbee was the largest town between San Diego and St. Louis, Mo.

Dickson and his community hospital symbolize much of what has gone wrong with the immigration policies of the U.S. and Mexico—"the irresponsibility," as Dickson puts it politely, of both governments. He figures he has another three years, maybe a little longer, before he might be forced to shut down the hospital. "We used to have 250 emergency-room visits a month. Now it's 500," says Dickson. They range from a lone man or woman rescued in the desert, suffering from dehydration or a heart attack, to multiple victims injured when vans jammed with 20 or more illegals crash during high-speed chases. Along the way the hospital is seeing more and more tuberculosis, AIDS and hepatitis. "We don't have to do disaster drills like other hospitals," Dickson says. "We have enough real disasters every year."

Unlike big governments, small community hospitals cannot run deficits forever. The Copper Queen's shortfall from treating illegal aliens grows each year. This year it will be about $ 450,000, bringing the total for the past few years to $ 1.4 million. With each money-losing year, a tiny piece of the 14-bed hospital dies. When that happens, the entire community suffers. Dickson's most agonizing decision came when he was forced to shutter the long-term-care unit. "It was the only place the elderly could go," he says. "If someone had dementia, we had a room for them." But no more. Now if people who spent their life in Bisbee need elder care, they must leave the area. "The more free care we give," Dickson says, "the more we have to ration what's left."

Dickson emphasizes that not all the free care is going to illegal aliens passing through on their way to other states. About half goes to Mexicans who use the Copper Queen as their personal emergency-care facility. In effect, the hospital, which performs general surgery, has become the trauma center for that stretch of northern Mexico. If an ambulance pulls up to the border-crossing point near Bisbee and announces "compassionate entry," the border patrol waves it through, and the Copper Queen is compelled to treat the patient. It is one more program that Congress mandates but does not pay for. "If you make me treat someone," says Dickson, "then you need to pay me. You can't have unfunded mandates in a small hospital." Although the Medicare drug act that passed last year provides for modest payments to hospitals that treat illegal aliens, Dickson says there is a catch that the U.S. government has yet to figure out. "How do I document an undocumented alien? How am I going to prove I rendered that care? They have no Social Security number, no driver's license."

The limits of compassion are also being tested on the Tohono O'odham Nation. About twice the size of Delaware, the tribe's reservation shares 65 miles of border with Mexico. Like the residents of the small Arizona towns just to the east, the Native Americans, many of whom live without running water and electricity, are overwhelmed. The Nation's hospital is often packed with migrants who become dehydrated while crossing the scorching desert, where summertime temperatures reach upwards of 110th. The undermanned tribal police force helps the border patrol round up as many as 1,500 illegals a day. "If this were happening in any other city or part of the country," says Vivian Juan-Saunders, Tohono O'odham chairwoman, "it would be considered a crisis."

Yet the highest levels of the U.S. and Mexican governments have orchestrated this situation as a kind of dance: Mexico sends its poor north to take jobs illegally, and the U.S. arrests enough of the border crossers to create the illusion that it is enforcing the immigration laws while allowing the great majority to get through. Local lawmen like Jim Elkins and Larry Dever have learned the dance firsthand, and their towns and counties have to pay for it.

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