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Once more, into the breach

Like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, the Federal Government this past year would allocate manpower and equipment to a breach along the U.S.-Mexican border, only to have another conduit for illegal immigration open up somewhere else along the line, bringing with it some of the worst drug-related violence in years.

Legislation approved by the House in July added $2.8 billion to efforts to enforce immigration laws, including the hiring of 1,100 new Border Patrol agents, and $7.1 billion to combat drugs. Narcotics-related violence along the border, said White House drug-policy director Barry McCaffrey at a law-enforcement summit, has gotten “immeasurably worse,” and officials must prepare for a long-term fight.

Violent incidents involving Federal agents and Mexican nationals trying to enter the country illegally included:

The murder of a Border Patrol agent by a suspected drug smuggler in west Texas.

An exchange of gunfire between Border Patrol agents in El Paso and a suspected narcotics trafficker on Aug. 14.

A Nov. 7 attack on a Border Patrol agent in the El Paso area after he had chased three men back to Mexico. One of them opened fire with a shotgun from across the border. The agent was unharmed, but his vehicle was strafed with pellets.

An illegal immigrant who ran off a 120-foot cliff in the dark on Jan. 20 after being stopped by Federal agents at Otay Lakes Dam, Texas, about four miles north of the Mexican border. The FBI is investigating the incident.

¶ An accident involving a van carrying 20 illegal immigrants, after the vehicle missed a turn and crashed into three parked cars in Honey Springs, Calif., killing one person and injuring 12 others.

¶ Thirteen shots fired by men in Mexico in July at Border Patrol agents in Calexico, Calif. The agents, who were uninjured, recovered 507 pounds of cocaine.

In towns like Eagle Pass, Tex., landowners and residents have been terrorized by drug gangs and bandits who continually crossed their land bringing billions of dollars worth of marijuana, cocaine and heroin into the country and trying to push them off their property. During a meeting in May, the town’s ranch owners called on Federal agencies to help them. Three months later, the state Department of Public Safety dispatched 100 patrol and narcotics officers to Eagle Pass to address the situation.

But agents from the U.S. Border Patrol, Customs Service and DEA admitted to being badly outmanned and outgunned. The gangs, said officials, are often aided by night-vision equipment, cellular phones, border sentries, and their own intelligence-gathering capabilities.

More drug seizures and arrests of illegal immigrants were made in the area during the first half of last fiscal year than in all of 1995  and that’s with agents catching just an estimated 5 percent, said Federal officials.

Last year, agents made seizures of 873 pounds of marijuana in El Paso, 301 pounds of cocaine in Nogales, Ariz., and 8,000 pounds of marijuana in tiny Eagle Pass.

“There are so many little roads, side roads coming out of here, it’s impossible for us to stop it with the manpower we have in this sector,” conceded Benny Carrasco, the Border Patrol agent in charge of Eagle Pass.

The El Paso area was prey last year for a brazen group of bandits believed to be operating out of Mexico. They blocked four-lane roads with boulders, nail-studded boards and, once, an old sofa. When motorists were forced to a stop, they were robbed. The gang was suspected of more than 20 robberies at the beginning of the year, including numerous assaults.

Plans were made in El Paso to erect lights and a two chain-link fences along the border. Similar plans were announced in October for the border at Naco, Ariz., where a steel barrier will be erected by Marines. Near Sunland, N.M., steel mats will be implanted under a 1.3-mile long, 10-foot high fence the U.S. Border Patrol is installing.

But while the nation tried, both literally and figuratively, to fence itself off from illegal immigration, a record number of people were naturalized in 1996  more than 1 million, twice the number of immigrants granted citizenship in 1995. The huge swelling of citizenship applications was attributed to a 1986 amnesty that allowed 2.6 million immigrants to legalize their status. And, helping the INS plow through the backlog was a program called Citizenship USA. It was that program that raised fears that the hundreds of applicants may have been granted citizenship before Federal agencies could complete criminal background and fingerprint checks. The citizenships of 36 people subsequently found to have felony records had to be revoked.

In the throes of anti-immigration fervor, some of the proposed legislation aimed at the problem was found to sit poorly with law enforcement. The Police Executive Research Forum, the National Fraternal Order of Police, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block were among the organizations and individuals who came out strongly in the spring against a provision in an immigration reform bill that would have denied public education to the children of illegal immigrants. One of the biggest problems, said Block, is developing a positive alternative to gangs and drugs for these youngsters who have free time after school. “To literally have them loose on the street under this provision,” he said, “I don’t see how that would be a positive.”

The Immigration and Naturalization Service extended its own measure of sympathy to the plight of some immigrants, when officials said in March that under a provision of the Violence Against Women Act they would allow immigrant women and children who were the victims of domestic abuse to seek legal status on their own.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]