Shortly after 4 p.m, the telltale green-and-white vehicles began converging on the encampment, kicking up dust over McGonigle Canyon and prompting residents to scoot up the hillsides, dart into shacks or, alternately, sit back and watch the unfolding spectacle. The unexpected arrival cut short a practice soccer match and provoked cries of "Migra!" "Migra!" from the brush.
But most residents, such as Jorge Rolando Ocampo, simply searched their wallets for the all-important U.S. immigration card and assumed the role of interested spectators as the green-uniformed agents chased others through the brush, yelling "Halt!" in Spanish.
"It doesn't bother me," said Ocampo, 22, a Mexican citizen who is a legal U.S. resident thanks to the 1986 amnesty program for agricultural laborers. He observed the action from his hillside dwelling, which has a fine view below to the camp's soccer field, a meandering creek, the stands of eucalyptus and rows of handcrafted dwellings. "One feels sorry for one's friends who don't have documents, but they'll be back tomorrow."
In the migrant camps of northern San Diego County, the word has gone out: La Migra is back.
In July, the U.S. Border Patrol resumed its controversial raids on the scores of area squatter settlements that house thousands of migrant laborers and their families.
U.S. authorities say the sweeps, occasionally conducted in concert with deputy sheriffs and police officers from neighboring cities, are an important component of overall enforcement efforts.
"My job is to arrest illegal aliens, and that's why I'm here," said James B. Wagoner, the supervisory Border Patrol agent who led the raid last week at the McGonigle Canyon site in the Rancho Penasquitos area, home to one of the county's largest migrant settlements. "I like a lot of these people, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to arrest them," Wagoner said as he surveyed the operation from a high point alongside the stream that bisects the encampment.
Immigrant rights groups say the raids accomplish little other than to disrupt camp life, particularly since most squatters now appear to be legal residents under the amnesty program. Together, the raid at the Rancho Penasquitos camp and another at a nearby camp netted only 34 arrests of illegal immigrants--fewer than one arrest for each of the 36 agents involved in the operation, which also involved 18 Border Patrol vehicles from the agency's office in El Cajon.
"For pragmatic reasons, it just doesn't seem like the best use of Border Patrol resources," said Claudia Smith, regional counsel with California Rural Legal Aid, an advocacy group for migrant laborers. "It takes 'em two days flat, and the people apprehended are back from the raids. They're not accomplishing a lot."
The raids, once a regular part of the enforcement pattern in the area, had been more or less on hold for several years as the Border Patrol concentrated on other priorities. In recent times, agents normally based in North County have routinely been assigned to "line" duty at the actual border strip.
In the meantime, other factors intervened to reduce the frequency of the operations. The amnesty program, particularly its provisions assisting agricultural laborers, has helped Ocampo and many other camp dwellers obtain legal U.S. residence status, leaving border agents with no reason to arrest them. Earlier this year, agents deliberately stayed out of the camps for months in an effort to assist federal census takers, who were attempting, with mixed success, to include homeless people and squatters in their counts.
However, authorities say the hiring of new agents--Border Patrol active staffing is up by 65 officers this year in the San Diego area--has allowed supervisors to assign more personnel to the border zone, meaning there is less need to borrow agents normally posted to northern San Diego County. Gustavo de la Vina, the chief Border Patrol agent in San Diego, has decided to put additional emphasis on squatter encampments, whose existence can be among the most divisive and volatile issues in local communities.
"We realize there has been a buildup of illegal aliens in the camps, and we don't want them to think there is any safe haven," said De la Vina, who is in his first year on the job. "We're putting the pressure on. . . . We get a lot of complaints from residents up there."
Indeed, the presence of the encampments, often situated near high-priced housing developments, has long angered property owners and lawmakers, who say local authorities are virtually helpless to do anything about the squatters. Though authorities have taken action that resulted in the razing and bulldozing of many camps, the migrant laborers, unable to afford area rents, typically have relocated to other crude sites in the brush. (Migrant advocates say communities have ignored more conciliatory alternatives, such as seeking funds to build low-cost housing or providing portable bathrooms.)