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Border Views : Foreign Observers Flock to Study Issues at U.S.-Mexico Line


SAN DIEGO — A cold night on the border: Spotlights glowed in the mist, guards cruised the no-man's-land between dark fences.

The visiting European journalists in the U.S. Border Patrol vehicle stared at the migrants huddled around campfires in a cage-like Tijuana sewer tunnel. A reflection of flames flickered in Janos Desi's glasses and his Hungarian accent lent gravity to his words: "I think all borders are the same."

German newspaper editor Peter Heinacher felt a similar surge of recognition. But Heinacher, who years ago patrolled the Iron Curtain as a West German soldier, said the gloomy San Diego landscape lacked the mines and gun towers that have marked other borders in blood.

"I have seen people after they hit the booby-traps," he said. "You could not know it was a human being. An arm here, a leg there. This border is not so bad. This is easy."

The visit last week was part of a continuous stream of foreign observers at the U.S.-Mexico line in recent years. The pace has picked up since the start last month of Operation Gatekeeper, a Clinton Administration buildup of the Border Patrol to stem the flow of illegal immigration. U.S. agents have conducted tours for a dizzying variety of news crews and police officials from Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and Australia.

The border draws them because it is both unique and universal. The epic convergence of social, political and economic forces at the southwestern corner of the United States reflects an era of dissolving borders and worldwide migration at the end of the century.

Whether it is police officials looking for law enforcement advice or reporters pursuing a good story, their presence injects another surreal element into the daily drama at the only land barrier between the First and Third Worlds. And at a time of passionate debate about immigration in California, the perspective of outsiders who are grappling with similar issues can be instructive.

For example, unlike the United States, police in most nations routinely demand identification papers and detain suspected illegal immigrants without regard for their proximity to the border or for civil rights. Some visitors to San Diego express surprise that the Border Patrol--which critics often accuse of brutality--is not tougher, said Ann Summers, the patrol's chief public information officer in San Diego.

A South African police official suggested arming U.S. Border Patrol agents with machine guns. Other observers want to know "why we don't use cut glass, barbed wire, gun embattlements, that type of thing," Summers said. "We say, 'Because we don't want people to get injured. It's not like that here.' "

The long list of visitors included members of the Spanish Civil Guard, which compared notes with the Border Patrol regarding enforcement on Spain's southern coast, where illegal immigrants from North Africa brave harrowing seas on rafts--much like the boat people of Cuba and Haiti. A Taiwanese official wanted to know where his government could purchase the seismic sensors used by the Border Patrol to detect illegal entries. A representative of the interior ministry of Zimbabwe told Summers about increasing population pressure from neighboring African nations.

"It's a landlocked country," she said. "It's a country that's fairly economically stable next to countries that are not. That kind of economic disparity is the problem all over."

On the other hand, last week's visiting journalists reacted dubiously to Operation Gatekeeper. Television reporter Line Danielson acknowledged that authorities in her native Denmark have launched a crackdown at airports and harbors because of resentment toward economic and political refugees from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. "There is anger against those who stay on welfare, those who don't want to learn the language."

Nonetheless, the Danish reporter dismissed the emphasis on border policing as a shortsighted remedy.

"I think it is strange to spend so much money on enforcing the border," she said. "The U.S. has a contradictory policy. You are a wealthy country, yet in proportion to GNP you spend little on foreign aid. The way to prevent illegal immigration is to spend more money on foreign aid to improve the Third World."

Danielson, Desi and Heinacher, whose travels are funded by a fellowship program known as the German Marshall Fund, toured the border with colleagues Isabel Salema of Portugal and Hugo Martinez of Mexico. They piled into the van driven by their guide, Marco Ramirez, a jovial, 10-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol who grew up and went to college in Mexico.

Ramirez's briefing included before-and-after photos of the new defenses and an explanation of the topographic "war board" at the Imperial Beach station. His listeners inundated him with trenchant questions about statistics, drugs, NAFTA, and what it is like for a Mexican American agent to arrest Mexican border crossers.

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