Border is a blurring line

There is no sign announcing Annunciation House. Unless a person knows differently, the old brick building in El Paso, Texas, almost looks abandoned.

The windows are covered. All the doors have been blocked except for one, which remains locked. But knock on the door and it will open wide to the smells of Mexican cooking and laughing voices of people speaking dialects of Spanish ranging from Northern Mexico to the remote corners of Central America.

In a residential neighborhood that is a 10-minute walk from the U.S. border, Annunciation House acts as a waystation for people who need to rest during their journeys from Mexico and other parts of Latin America to opportunities in the fields, hotels and restaurants to the north. The shelter runs on private donations from unnamed Catholic residents of El Paso.

From the window of the small chapel where the guests gather for mass, they can see the Mexican mountains that surround Juarez. From the dining room, they can see the skyscrapers of El Paso's financial district.

After a few days of rest, the guests say goodbye and head for Missouri, Nebraska, California, Florida and Colorado -- anywhere cheap labor is needed.

They risk their lives crossing a "closed" border, following the promise of work where employers are willing to hire them -- places such as Steamboat Springs.

"The border is not thousands of miles away anymore," said Peter Laufer, NBC News correspondent and author of "Wetback Nation." "The border is in places like Bowling Green, Ky., and Steamboat Springs, Colo.

"Go into an Italian restaurant, and the cook is probably a Mexican. It is the reality we face. Whether you think it's good or it's bad, it doesn't matter what you think. They are here."

The economy on both sides of the border -- high unemployment in Mexico and readily available seasonal jobs in the United States -- keeps a steady flow of traffic moving north across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Guarding the border

Keeping illegal immigrants on their side of the border is like one man trying to hold up a crumbling dam.

The El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol is responsible for guarding 180 miles of land border and 109 miles of river border. About 1,200 agents cover the area, and an unprecedented addition of 240 agents is scheduled to join the patrol this fiscal year, said Border Patrol Public Affairs Officer Doug Mosier. As of April 26, the El Paso Sector of the Border Patrol had apprehended 67,000 illegal border crossers in 2005.

Senior Patrol Agent Elias Garcia understands why people try to sneak across the border, but he also knows that some drown trying and some die of dehydration and exposure in the desert. He knows that a country needs boundaries and that laws need to be obeyed.

Generations back, his family crossed from Mexico, he said, but they did it legally.

Garcia became a border patrolman later in life. He joined in his 30s after a life as a military brat and years in his early 20s spent moving from job to job in search of what he wanted to do with his life.

He's been with the Border Patrol as a line agent for eight years. He talks about his job with pride. He sees himself, above all, as a lifesaver.

"When I approach a group in the desert, that's when I'm doing my job," he said, "because those people aren't going to die today."

People crossing the border are usually law-abiding citizens, he said, but "hunger forces you to do things you wouldn't normally do. If their hopes are pinned on getting to the United States, it doesn't matter how hard it can be."

Politics of security

Since the passage of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the U.S. Border Patrol has grown into the nation's largest uniformed law enforcement agency, with 11,000 agents deployed along the 2,000-mile border.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, that number is growing. On Nov. 25, 2002, President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act. With it, the U.S. Border Patrol moved from its longtime position under Immigration and Naturalization Services to a new place under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security on March 1, 2003.

With the move, the Border Patrol has reaped the benefits of the country's renewed interest in the border.

"We've always been the first line of defense, but now our job has really moved from immigration to stopping terrorism," Public Affairs Officer Mosier said.

As part of the Department of Homeland Security's antiterrorism efforts, the Border Patrol processing center in El Paso, where people await deportation -- or "voluntary return" -- was outfitted with an inkless fingerprinting station, digital cameras and a computer system that connects them to law enforcement agencies around the world.

Border Patrol agents are required to go through a rigorous 19-week academy designed to weed out the weak. Twenty percent to 30 percent of the trainees drop out before graduation, Mosier said. All Border Patrol agents are required to speak Spanish.

After eight years with the patrol, Garcia has a well-trained eye to spot which people are taking a stroll near the fence and which people are going to attempt a crossing.

"See that group sitting over there?" he said. "Look at that guy in the sleeveless shirt. He looks different from everyone else. Why is that? He's probably the smuggler."

Border Patrol agents are trained in the art of "sign cutting." Garcia can point to a set of footprints and tell you how long ago someone walked by, if they are tired or injured and which one in the group might be the smuggler. The Border Patrol regularly drags car tires behind their trucks to smooth out the sand near the border so they know when someone crossed.

"We follow a trail as long as it takes -- four, six or 12 hours," Garcia said.

Crossing the line

Illegal immigrants usually carry only the clothes on their back to keep from attracting attention, and the increasing difficulty of crossing the border leads to long walks in the desert.

By the time immigrants make it across the border, they are hungry, tired and terrified. Some give themselves up to Border Patrol agents just to get a drink of water.

After years of hearing about immigrant deaths, individuals and church organizations in Juarez and El Paso quietly opened safe houses to help migrants.

The Border Patrol knows about the border-area shelters, but there is an unspoken truce.

"We recognize that what they are doing is humanitarian," Garcia said. "People could die if they didn't get a chance to rest or get some water and food."

Garcia said that every day is a balancing act for him as he patrols the border. He is there to enforce the law, but he is also a compassionate man.

He sometimes brings leftovers from home and extra water on his patrols, because many of the people he picks up have children with them.

Help along the way

Knowledge of Annunciation House spreads along the migrant trail by word of mouth.

There are rooms for men, women and families lined with bunk beds. The basement is full of clean clothes and shoes, donated by El Paso residents and free for the taking.

Inside the pantry, two 32-gallon cans of rice and beans stand side by side. Guests are asked to cook for themselves and, on any day, the kitchen is the biggest hub of activity.

On a Friday in April, more than 10 people were standing in the kitchen cooking a donated turkey, rice, beans and gravy in the style of a traditional Mayan dish from the Yucatan.

They made enough for everyone staying at Annunciation House -- about 30 men, women and young children.

Before they ate, they stood in a circle, holding hands. With heads bowed, they thanked the Lord for getting them this far in their journey, and they prayed for protection for the rest of it.

During their short stays at Annunciation house, migrants collect the energy to continue their journey into the United States.

For some, it will take more willpower than others.

Carlos stood over the stove putting the final touches on a meal for everyone staying at the house. He is a cook by trade and plans to make his way to Miami, where he heard there is work. He is from Michoacan, an agricultural state southwest of Mexico City.

He had been at Annun-ciation House for two weeks and will leave soon. When he arrived, he was exhausted, dehydrated and defeated, he said through a translator.

After a three-day bus ride to Tijuana, Mexico, from Michoacan, Carlos paid a coyote $2,000 to get him as far as Houston.

Human smuggling

Garcia's face darkens when anyone mentions the "coyotes" (a name for people who make their living smuggling illegal immigrants across the border). The smuggling industry has grown, and the price smugglers charge has risen with every anti-terrorism and border blocking measure the Department of Homeland Security has taken.

Coyotes charge a migrant an average of $2,000 a person depending on their final destination.

Most will defer payment until their cargo is safely in a job in the United States.

"These smugglers are only out for profit," Garcia said. "Their methods are very dangerous. They hide people in 18-wheelers without ventilation. They have families crossing fast-moving waterways or walking for days in the desert.

"These people trust the smugglers with their lives. They think if they pay money, they will arrive safely, but the coyotes will abandon them in the desert if there is trouble."

And that's exactly what happened to Carlos.

The coyote made him walk for six days, crossing back and forth across the border to avoid the migra (a name the immigrants use for the Border Patrol). They got as far as El Paso, and the coyote abandoned him.

That first night at Annun-ciation House, he didn't think he could continue, but with two weeks of rest, food and a fresh change of clothes, Carlos has new hope.

"I feel more animated. I have energy again. I think I can accomplish my goal," he said.

The next day, Carlos left for Miami, and another exhausted, disheartened traveler took his place.

Mary Fontana, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, has seen hundreds of people such as Carlos since she came to Annunciation House in October. According to the shelter's records, more than 20,000 people have stayed at Annunciation House in the past five years.

Fontana volunteers in exchange for room, board, bus tokens and $8 a month in spending money. She learned about Annunciation House in a book about volunteer opportunities while she was debating what to do in her year before graduate school. She is one of six volunteers who promise to work for a year -- mopping floors, processing donations and learning about the people and the politics of the U.S. border.

"Americans need to realize how lucky they are to be born in this country," Fontana said. "You won the world lottery. If you lose your job, there is a support system. There are free public schools.

"You have all that, not because you earned it, but because you were born here. People look at these immigrants and think they don't deserve to be here, but is that accident of birth enough to bar them from all those things you want for yourself and your family?"

According to the United States government, if you don't have a visa, it is.

Closing the border

The proposed 2006 budget submitted by President Bush includes $37 million for additional Border Patrol agents and $20 million for the replacement of aging Border Patrol aircraft.

The 2006 budget increases funding by $176 million for the detention and removal of illegal aliens. It provides $90 million for increased detention beds and additional detention and removal officers. The budget also includes $3.5 million for additional Department of Homeland Security attorneys to prosecute immigration cases.

Today, much of the El Paso Sector resources go into Operation Hold the Line, a 25-mile stretch of reinforced steel mesh fence topped with barbwire, lit 24 hours a day and guarded by cameras and censors. It looks and feels like a war zone.

Operation Hold the Line was the brainchild of Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, a congressman whose background includes 26 years with the INS, 13 of them as a Border Patrol chief in Texas.

Similar border programs have been implemented elsewhere -- Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego and Operation Safeguard in Nogales, Ariz.

Operation Hold the Line seems an impenetrable obstacle course that separates Juarez, Mexico, from the Ascarate Municipal Golf Course in El Paso.

From a high-tech booth, agents constantly watch 20 TV monitors relaying information from cameras all along the border. Sport utility vehicles and agents on foot and bicycle pace the line.

Hold the Line is designed to push illegal immigrants out of the cities where it is easy to quickly blend in and disappear and into the open areas where it is difficult to hide.

"Operation Hold the Line really improved the quality of life in El Paso," Garcia said. "The year before it began, we apprehended 285,000 trying to cross into El Paso. That has dried up by 70 percent."

Holes open elsewhere

Although there are still the ambitious who try to cross in El Paso, the traffic has been pushed to the outlying areas, affecting small towns such as Fabens, Texas, and Columbus, N.M.

Before sunrise or right after sunset, people gather in the Mexican town of Las Palomas to make their run at the border. Three miles away sits Columbus, N.M.

With a population of 1,500, Columbus' downtown is a dusty block with one of everything -- a small grocery store, a police station, a town hall and The Patio Cafe, the town's social center.

The town was built on ranching, but the once quiet life there is being replaced by high-speed chases through town, fence cutting, burglary and drug runner revenge against landowners who call the authorities.

Columbus police Chief Clare Alexamosil May leans against his desk in the one-room police station. His arms are crossed and covered in tattoos.

There is one small jail cell in the corner of the police station and water damage eroding the ceiling. He rents the space, he said.

May grew up in nearby Deming, N.M. He remembers a time in the 1970s when ranchers paid $5 a head to people who spotted an illegal border crosser on their land. He remembers a time when there were only 15 Border Patrol agents working in the area. Now there are more than 120. He remembers a time when they arrested five illegal immigrants a month.

"Then it went up to 50. Then 100. Now, it's up to 200 and 300 a day," he said. His police department consists of a chief, one officer, a school resource officer and an administration clerk. The department has an annual budget of $152,000.

While the resources are being poured into Border Patrol, May's department is treated like a small-town police force with small-town issues.

"There are high-speed pursuits through town. We've had 20 stolen cars abandoned in the area in the last month," he said.

The problem lies in the confusion between Border Patrol and local law enforcement jurisdiction.

"Who should respond when a car speeds through town at 100 miles an hour? Who should respond when someone is robbing five illegal immigrants at gunpoint in the desert? Who is responsible when drug runners retaliate against a rancher whose property was used to burn a large confiscated amount of marijuana?"

May said he has been working around the clock for months trying to keep up with his workload.

"I have collected so much comp time, I stopped keeping track," he said. "See these bags under my eyes? I'm tired."

As part of a grassroots solution, May has trained a group of 10 volunteers called the Columbus Police Auxiliary. They have radios and are given firearms training.

Most of the volunteers are area ranchers who are getting frustrated with the constant stream of people crossing their land on their way north.

"People say that we are living too close to the border," May said. "But this is the United States. This is my home. I'm not leaving."

Like the Border Patrol, May sees himself as standing on the front line, protecting the United States.

"What we are doing down here, we are probably doing for your community," May said.

To reach Autumn Phillips, call 871-4210 or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com.

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