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Beyond GOP Rhetoric, Border Crossers Keep Coming


TECATE, Calif. — If the Republican National Convention was the stage for Wednesday's war of words on illegal immigration along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, this back-country refuge for smugglers and emigres is its true battleground.

As politicians and delegates at the Republican National Convention prepared to denounce U.S. immigration policy Wednesday, illegal immigrants continued to trudge through the treacherous desert canyons and gorges of eastern San Diego County with the single goal of survival.

Out here, 35 miles from the San Diego Convention Center, it is not clear who the enemy is. To the immigrants, carrying little but tales of hard luck, it is the economic crisis in Mexico.

"We are not bad people. We just want to work," said Pedro Machuco Hernandez, 25, who lost his job recently in a wave of layoffs at a faltering tire dealership near Mexico City, leaving him unable to support his wife and two young daughters.

It is these people, flowing from impoverished Mexican communities to the richest nation in the hemisphere, who since the early 1980s have challenged and frustrated U.S. politicians, some of whom now want to end the millennium by building a wall between the United States and Mexico.

On this moonless night, a tattered band of immigrants huddles together in the darkness on the American side of the border, waiting for their smugglers to order them into the chaparral.

"Shut up! I told you to get down! Put out that cigarette! Do you want us to get caught?" hissed one of the "coyotes," a thin but tough-looking youth of 19. The immigrants fall silent.

Julia Rebollan, 31, owes her smuggler $800, a steep price that reflects the hurdles imposed by Operation Gatekeeper, the crackdown along 14 miles of border in western San Diego County that has moved illegal immigrants east. Rebollan wears an aqua turtleneck, a long black braid and a look of obvious fear. She needs to join her sister in Chicago, she says, to support her 1-year-old son back in Mexico.

"I would go anywhere there is work," said Locadio Estrada, 47, a sharecropper from the village of Luvianos, near Mexico City, who left behind a wife and 11 children. "Things have gotten so much worse in the last few years."

The North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1993 by Mexico, the United States and Canada was designed in part to make border crossings like this one much less common, by providing jobs to keep Mexicans in Mexico.

But Mexico's economic downturn has triggered widespread layoffs of unskilled workers, some of whom are heading north, experts say, in a sort of reverse NAFTA.

"People are getting in in spite of Gatekeeper," said Phil Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis and an authority on Mexican immigration. "The numbers aren't going down, and if anything, in spite of NAFTA, they're probably up, higher than they've ever been before.

"There's a hell of a reason to come. We have these networks with tremendous infrastructure and the 'coyotes' that make it possible for people to come," Martin said. "The question is how do you go about attacking that?"

Jose Juarez Hurtado, 69, a hotel clerk in the Mexican border town also called Tecate, remembers a time when he and millions of other Mexican workers were welcomed, even recruited, to alleviate temporary labor shortages under the bracero program that began during World War II and continued into the 1960s.

Immigration experts say that the old work programs, coupled with widespread resistance to enforcing sanctions against U.S. employers who hire illegal immigrants, have helped form the immigration patterns that are now viewed as a problem.

"If you see Bob Dole, tell him not to be so hard on the poor pollos," Juarez said, using the slang nickname--"chickens"--by which illegal immigrants are known.

Under the Clinton administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is pouring tremendous resources into increased enforcement. Operation Gatekeeper, begun in October 1994, has made it more difficult for immigrants to cross into western San Diego border communities such as Imperial Beach and San Ysidro.

But overall immigrant apprehension figures--one of the imprecise measures used to estimate the number of illegal immigrants that come to the United States--have remained steady over the last decade, according to San Diego Border Patrol spokesman Ron Henley.

In 1993, 531,689 people were apprehended in the San Diego sector, which stretches 66 miles east from the Pacific Ocean. There was a substantial drop, to 450,152, in 1994, attributed to torrential rains and flooding, Henley said. But in 1995, 524,231 immigrants were apprehended, and 420,421 have been picked up so far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

"It's basically the same," Henley said. "The balance is about half a million people for the last 10 years." Nationwide, the average has hovered at about 1 million arrests for the past decade, he added.

In the canyons and gullies of eastern San Diego County, the statistics are of little consequence and the anti-illegal immigration rhetoric in the Convention Center matters less. The immigrants quickly seek cover after crossing through a hole already burrowed under a border fence built as part of Operation Gatekeeper.

A crowd of curious children gathers at the opening as more immigrants prepare to go to "the other side." As they watch, a jeep that may have been a Border Patrol vehicle disappears down a dirt track and the immigrants slip into the United States.

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