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Border Jumpers Leave Their Imprint on a Besieged Town

Most Calexico residents lock doors, but some cash in on a steady flow of illegal immigrants.

June 03, 2004|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

CALEXICO, Calif. — Each day, the runners tumble out of holes cut in the 15-foot-high steel fence in front of Noemi Parra's home on the U.S. side of the border. The illegal immigrants race through her front yard, duck under the clothesline and hurdle her neighbors' bushes before disappearing.

When the Border Patrol is nearby, immigrants shake the doorknobs on her house, plead for help and sometimes try to burst inside uninvited.

"In the beginning I was scared. Now I'm used to being locked inside my house," said Parra as she watched a group of men sawing noisily through the steel fence across the street.

Parra's neighborhood, which stretches three blocks deep along the border, is one of the most popular spots in Calexico for illegal immigrants to cross. Within seconds, a runner can melt into America.

Unlike other border cities that are separated by canyons or rivers, Calexico and Mexicali form a contiguous sprawl, only briefly divided by the six-mile border barrier.

Calexico, known as the Gateway to Mexico, is trapped in the middle of an unusual drama as federal agents struggle to prevent the Imperial Valley city 120 miles east of San Diego from becoming a safe zone for illegal immigrants.

Increased border security in California -- stadium lighting, surveillance cameras and more agents -- has pushed many illegal immigration routes east to Arizona. In Calexico the number of fence jumpers has diminished in recent years. But the border remains porous, the streets chaotic.

Most residents lock their doors. Others in the city of 27,000 residents -- 95% of them Latino -- show compassion by offering water or food. And some, hearing the desperate knocks, have hidden immigrants in closets and back bedrooms. Still others have discovered a lucrative business in providing sanctuary.

"Residents are caught ... between compassion and coercion," said Mario Lacuesta, a supervisory Border Patrol agent. "We wish we had more cooperation ... but we understand that some people, because of the retaliation factor, don't contribute."

The effort can seem futile at times: A recent police meeting with residents to discuss the problem of illegal immigrants running across yards was interrupted by an immigrant running across the yard.

One 1st Street homeowner calls the pursuits "the never-ending story."

"The properties here get destroyed," said the resident who refused to give his name. "The immigrants cave in our roofs. They climb our trees. If you don't lock your car, they get in your car. You don't need to get a movie because at night, life here is a movie."

Human smugglers -- who offer residents up to $300 to harbor illegal immigrants -- have changed some attitudes. Because of their fear and disgust over the smugglers' profiteering, some residents who were once sympathetic now point agents to hiding places.

And many who might have helped immigrants now turn them away. If smugglers learn that a person has an open-door policy, residents say the house gets mapped on escape routes.

"Some people feel sorry for them and try to help," said Maria S. Mendez, who, like some residents, tells of finding an illegal immigrant hiding in her living room. "But you never finish. If you help them, they come back."

The agents, peering through binoculars, keep watch day and night. Parked in SUVs or roaming on bicycles, they are stationed every 100 yards or so along the border. It can be boring work -- sitting hour after hour in the searing sun -- but a footrace can start at any moment. Last year, 40,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended along the 37-mile border from Calexico to Arizona.

The smugglers, yelling taunts and threats through the fence, are defiant. Lacuesta said one asked for a little respect. He said, "I don't hate you: you've got a job to do. But so do I."

For years, Calexico and Mexicali seemed like one city. The chain-link fence between the two was so flimsy that people would pull it aside and walk into the United States. Agents were often nowhere to be seen, and immigrants could easily cross the border and hop on buses or take taxis north out of the city.

But with the erection of the steel fence, and bolstered security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, illegal crossings became more difficult. Though the number of crossings decreased, activity surged in the area, and finding an immediate hiding place became key.

The immigrant paths into Calexico are marked by broken fences, snapped tree branches and trampled bushes. Border jumpers open backyard gates and slip into barbecues and quinceanera parties. Some conceal themselves in green trash bags. Others run through elementary school playgrounds. An agent once found two men in the girls' restroom of the Calexico Adventist Mission Academy.

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