TIJUANA — In January, 1985, Dong Chan Kim had a rendezvous in this border town.
Dong, a native of Korea who was living legally in Los Angeles, met four South Koreans as they arrived at the Tijuana airport from Mexico City. Afterward, Dong and his son-in-law drove the visitors to a fancy downtown restaurant, where the four newcomers handed Dong an envelope containing $5,600.
The next day, U.S. border authorities arrested the four Koreans as they attempted to enter the United States illegally through a rugged Tijuana canyon. During questioning, they named Dong as the man who had helped arrange the deal during a meeting three weeks earlier in a hotel in Seoul, South Korea. Dong later pleaded guilty to one smuggling count and is serving a six-month jail term imposed by a U.S. district judge last month.
U.S. authorities say Dong's case illustrates a small but growing trend: Illegal immigrants from nations as far-flung as Korea, Yugoslavia, Poland, India and Ghana are following the well-blazed trail of Mexicans and other Latin Americans by attempting to enter the United States via Mexico.
In the first four months of the current fiscal year, for example, immigration authorities in San Diego--the nation's busiest border crossing--arrested 52 Yugoslavs, 41 Indians, 16 South Koreans, 8 Poles and 8 Chinese.
Although the number of arrests is tiny compared with apprehensions of illegal Mexican aliens, U.S. officials are nonetheless concerned, particularly because language and cultural barriers make investigations of such cases difficult and prosecutions costly.
"Trying to find a court-approved Albanian translator can be a mammoth undertaking," noted one federal prosecutor.
"It's a lot more difficult to infiltrate or break up a smuggling ring in Yugoslavia, as opposed to something that's local," said John Belluardo, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's regional office in Los Angeles.
Said one INS investigator: "We can break up four Mexican rings in the time it takes to crack one of these Yugoslavian cases."
Also, while Mexican nationals are routinely bused back across the border after signing voluntary departure forms, non-Mexicans cannot be deported to Mexico and must be held, at government expense, until their deportation cases are heard or until they post bond.
"There's a tremendous expense involved here," said Harold Ezell, INS commissioner for the western region.
During recent investigations of organized smuggling rings, INS officials have learned of sophisticated networks of airline routes, safe houses, preferred hotels, guides, couriers and back roads stretching from Europe, Asia, the Mideast and Africa to Mexican border cities and into the United States.
With legal visas to the United States in short supply, the porous barrier that is the U.S.-Mexico border is often the easiest path to the United States. And U.S. authorities say that Mexico, with its liberal policy for visitors' visas and its well-known reputation for corruption, is a convenient conduit for smuggling people of all nationalities into the United States.
Once considered a border oddity, non-Latin illegal aliens are now being picked up at border outposts as varied as the rugged mountain terrain of Texas' Big Bend, the flat desert of Arizona and the sprawling metropolis of San Diego. Like many Latin Americans, these newest aliens travel enormous distances--often at considerable personal danger--and pay as much as $10,000 to often-unscrupulous smugglers, investigators say.
Many of these non-Latin immigrants plan to unite with family members in communities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where they blend in with local ethnic communities and are unlikely ever to be apprehended. Often, though, they end up abandoned by smugglers who prey on their naivete, or imprisoned by U.S. authorities in the strange environs of the border.
"They (the smugglers) took everything I had," said Lord Emmanuel Smith, a 25-year-old citizen of Ghana who was arrested last December along with a group of Mexicans trying to enter the United States illegally in the border town of Calexico. The smugglers kept most of his money and his passport, Smith said in an interview at the INS detention facility in El Centro.
The increased smuggling of non-Latins from Mexico, which authorities say dates from the early 1980s, has resulted in some cultural paradoxes.
All along the border, U.S. immigration authorities long accustomed to dealing with Mexicans and other Latin Americans have schooled themselves in such suddenly useful esoterica as the cultural nuances of the turbaned Sikhs of the Punjab or the historical roots of Yugoslavia's ethnic Albanians.