SAN DIEGO — An aging, Vietnam-era Border Patrol helicopter swooped overhead as Sen. Dianne Feinstein got an agent's view of the Tijuana River during a twilight tour of the U.S.-Mexico border this week.
After peering through an infrared vision device at Mexican immigrants waiting to cross the dusty channel--a main illicit crossing zone--and visiting the recently discovered international drug tunnel, Feinstein (D-Calif.) called for a concerted effort to stop illegal immigration and, thereby, stem anti-immigrant backlash.
"Before people go off the deep end, let's enforce the laws that we have," Feinstein said Thursday.
"The lure of coming across is one I can easily understand: It's hope, it's opportunity," Feinstein said. In an economic recession, however, unchecked illegal immigration creates "tension that is unhealthy to our society," she said.
Feinstein toured the nation's busiest stretch of international boundary Wednesday night for the first time as a senator, about a week after proposing legislation to protect the border.
Some of her proposals--an expanded Border Patrol, a border-crossing fee to pay for new equipment and personnel, toughened anti-smuggling laws--are not new. Similar measures have been advanced, generally with little success, by lower-profile congressional representatives and by Patrick Buchanan during his presidential campaign last year.
But President Clinton's recently announced offensive against the smuggling of Chinese immigrants by sea is one example of the emerging national preoccupation with illegal immigration. And immigration officials, who have grown accustomed to unkept political promises of reinforcements, see the California senator as a powerful new ally.
"We are very encouraged by the position she is taking," said Gustavo De La Vina, chief agent of the Border Patrol's San Diego sector.
Noting that Feinstein's membership on the Senate judiciary and appropriations committees gives her clout on border issues, spokesman Rudy Murillo of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service said: "Morale is way up as a result of this."
Although the influx of Chinese is driving much of the public interest, Border Patrol agents catch at least twice as many people in San Diego on a busy weekend than the estimated 2,000 Chinese illegal immigrants who have been apprehended on smuggling boats in the last two years.
As Feinstein saw Wednesday night, agents at the Tijuana line have to work with old vehicles and helicopters, defective radios and otherwise limited resources. The Border Patrol estimates that at least half of all border crossers escape arrest; San Diego agents made about 60,000 arrests last month. (The actual number of crossers was lower because a significant number are caught more than once.)
"It's ridiculous to send people out here and not give them the equipment to do their job right," Feinstein said. "If we are going to be serious about enforcing the laws that we have, then we have got to provide the level of enforcement, equipment, training that's necessary."
The Border Patrol has been battered by low morale, high attrition and recurring cases of corruption and abuse. Some administrators and veteran agents trace those problems to the frustrating nature of the job, inadequate supervision and flawed screening practices that have worsened during periodic hiring rushes.
More money and attention will help raise standards, Feinstein said.
"It's a pretty lonely, thankless job," Feinstein said. "They've always been a low-profile law enforcement agency. As they become higher profile, those things can change as well. As they are afforded resources, they can improve training."
The Senate will soon consider a House-approved bill that would fund 600 additional Border Patrol agents in next year's budget. Feinstein plans to support the measure, which was sponsored by Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado), Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale), and Lynn Schenk (D-San Diego).
The senator also defended her suggestion of imposing a $1 fee on legal crossings to raise about $403 million to pay for more agents and immigration inspectors, equipment and reinforced border facilities. In response to concerns that tourism and other aspects of the San Diego-Tijuana economy would suffer, she noted that tolls are already charged at some border bridges in Texas and that international airline fares include a $10 fee for entering the United States.