SAN YSIDRO, Calif. — At the end of a rutted dirt road, an agent of the U.S. Border Patrol, dressed in fatigues with a holstered pistol strapped around his waist, stood on the back of a pickup looking into a mounted scope. His attention was directed south, toward the canyons leading from nearby Mexico. As dusk approached, groups of glowing figures became visible in the greenish haze of the scope's viewer.
"They're just starting to come up now," said Agent Chuck Demors, noting that there was still a band of apricot-colored sunlight on the horizon, above the nearby Pacific. "Just wait. In another 45 minutes, when it's dark, they'll be pouring across."
Demors was looking through an infrared scope that, in total darkness, allows him to observe illegal aliens entering the United States from nearby Tijuana.
As night fell, other Border Patrol techniques came into place: a helicopter dived into canyons, its high-powered searchlights seeking aliens hiding in the rugged bush; agents in four-wheel-drive vans and off-road vehicles roamed the terrain; and, in the roughest country, foot officers sporting surreal night-vision goggles positioned themselves to intercept groups of aliens.
Buried Electronic Sensors
Meanwhile, in a sleekly futuristic control room a mile from the border, computer operators monitored hundreds of buried electronic sensors, using their radios to notify field agents of "hits" that indicate the presence of illegal aliens.
All in all, it is a long way from the Border Patrol's traditional image: the lonely agent on horseback, his head crowned by the telltale Smokey the Bear hat, patiently tracking through the rugged desert.
Increasingly, the effort to stop illegal immigration--which officials often refer to as a "war"--is taking on the physical trappings of a high-technology battle. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, U.S. immigration authorities seeking to impede the flow of illegal aliens are employing a formidable array of sensors, night-vision scopes, aircraft and other devices more familiar to a war zone. In fact, much of the equipment was designed for military use in Vietnam.
U.S. officials heartily endorse the high-tech approach, which they say saves manpower. The equipment buildup comes at a time when the Border Patrol is experiencing its largest personnel increase in history, when record numbers of aliens are believed to be entering the United States, and when some observers are openly calling for U.S. military units to be placed along the border.
"Technology greatly increases the effectiveness of our people," said Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, parent body of the Border Patrol.
"It just makes us one heck of a lot more efficient," said Marshall Mehlos, assistant chief patrol agent in San Diego.
Others are not so happy. Herman Baca, chairman of the Committee on Chicano Rights in San Diego, said the "militarization" of the border has led to greater harassment of illegal aliens by the Border Patrol. He noted, for instance, that at least one alien has been killed in San Diego this year and others injured after being run over by some of the patrol's vehicles. The Border Patrol says the incidents were accidents.
"It's part of the Rambo mentality . . . that every problem that confronts this country can be solved through law enforcement or military action," Baca said. "It parallels Vietnam. Our government policy-makers are fighting a war that they don't understand. . . . And you know who won in Vietnam."
Baca and others say the effort is doomed to failure: Without alleviating the Third World social ills that force people to come to the United States seeking work, they say, the tide of illegal immigration will continue unabated.
Federal officials acknowledge that technology and manpower alone will never stop illegal immigration through Mexico.
"As long as you have economic disparities and the ready availability of jobs in this country, people are going to try, regardless of what we put over there," said James Olech, a deputy chief Border Patrol agent in Washington who works on developing new equipment. "Unless you do something to deal with that disparity, you'll never be able to seal the border off."
Statistics show that there has been no letup in illegal immigration, despite the buildup. In San Diego, Border Patrol agents set a one-month record for the number of apprehensions of illegal aliens in March. Along the entire border, apprehensions were up 43% in the first four months of fiscal 1986, compared to the record pace of 1985. In February, INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson stated that the nation was experiencing "the greatest surge of people in history across our Southern border."
The undocumented immigrants are being met by what is undeniably the largest and best-equipped staff in Border Patrol history.