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Fence, Border Patrol Threats Cast Shadow on Neighboring Towns

Immigration: For years, residents of Jacumba, Calif., and Jacume, Mexico, have crossed into the other country unimpeded. That could soon change.


JACUMBA, Calif. — The new border fence slices through the desert hills like some rusting, corrugated version of the Great Wall of China. It most obviously divides the United States and Mexico, but also puts a wall between the Severance family, Pete and Jeri, and the Gallegos, Raul and Leandra.

For now, it's fine for all concerned. A couple of times a week, Leandra Gallego, a trim, dignified woman of 66 whose home sits about 10 yards inside Mexico, hops the fence at its lowest point and goes to work cleaning the home of the Severances, who sit about 10 yards inside the United States.

But if the U.S. Border Patrol follows through with threats to prohibit such crossings--well, the people of Jacumba, Calif., population 400, and Jacume, Mexico, about the same size, will have a big problem with that.

If it's true that all politics is local, Jacumba (pronounced hah-coom-bah) and Jacume (hah-coo-may) provide an extreme example. Here, the issue of illegal immigration, a vexing one for Americans everywhere, is cast in decidedly personal terms.

So far, immigration has not emerged as a major issue in the presidential campaign, perhaps because President Clinton is nearly as conservative a guardian of the border as Republican Bob Dole indicates he would be. Clinton has overseen a huge increase in the budget of the Border Patrol and has called for doubling its forces in the next four years. Under his watch, the Border Patrol has launched Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego--and built the Jacumba fence.

For generations, the people of Jacumba and Jacume, on either side of the border about 75 miles southeast of San Diego, have crossed back and forth as if the two countries were, in fact, neighbors.

People in Jacume would cross each day to work and shop in the United States. People in Jacumba would cross--less often, to be sure--to visit friends and family in Mexico.

They still do, but now there is the fence. It runs about three miles through dry, rugged hills and across the valley the two towns share. In the hills, it stands 10 feet high and consists of solid sheets of corrugated steel. In the valley, where flood waters can surge, it consists of steel fence posts crossed by a single line of railroad ties, set at about thigh level.

If there's a typical opinion of the fence, it might be the one expressed by Jose Rangel, a Jacumba resident and U.S. citizen who spent his early years in Jacume. His twin brother still lives there.

Rangel stands in the front yard of his new, double-wide mobile home, watering a profusion of morning glories, roses, irises and zinnias. He is a thick-set, slow-moving man whose broad, tanned face is shaded by a baseball cap. He speaks with an air of disgust.

"They're not going to stop nobody anyway," he says. He bends the hose in half until the stream slows to a trickle. Squinting in the afternoon sun, he asks: "Why do they want to stop me if I'm a U.S. citizen and I want to go see my brother?"

Immigration is a gut-level issue for many Americans, but few regard it quite so personally as the people of Jacumba. Still, a highly unscientific sampling of local opinion suggests that people here generally agree with Americans on immigration issues.

A national poll by Associated Press found Americans almost evenly divided over measures to crack down on illegal immigration. One in three said they have a great deal of concern about illegal immigration, but voters were more closely divided on proposals to deny citizenship, health benefits and education to the children of illegal immigrants. Overall, voters thought Clinton would do a better job than Dole of dealing with immigration.

Few people here, on either side of the border, are happy about the flood of illegal immigrants from central and southern Mexico who have poured through this area since Operation Gatekeeper began pushing the aspiring migrants farther east.

There are grumblings about drug smugglers, and a general dismay about strangers who have violated the cozy atmosphere of small-town life. Few people believe the Border Patrol is effective; most see the border fence here as a boondoggle. But nobody seems to think presidential politics has much to do with it.

Jose Rangel says he'll probably vote for Clinton, but not necessarily because of the president's position on immigration. Rangel, 45, born in the United States to Mexican farm workers, agrees with Dole that the children of illegal immigrants don't belong in U.S. public schools.

"If they've got no papers, why should I pay taxes for somebody to go to school?" he asks.

This, the one immigration issue on which Clinton and Dole sharply disagree, also divides the people of Jacumba.

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