SAN DIEGO — Along California's border with Mexico, the number of people caught crossing illegally has plummeted, a trickle compared to the hundreds of thousands arrested in Arizona. But to many residents and politicians in San Diego County, the international border remains a chaotic place overrun with illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.
The common complaint here is that something must be done to tighten security. But is declaring a state of emergency the answer?
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Border debate -- An article in Friday's Section A about the illegal immigration debate along California's border with Mexico misidentified the governors of Arizona and New Mexico. Janet Napolitano is the governor of Arizona. Bill Richardson is the governor of New Mexico.
The governors of New Mexico and Arizona did just that in the past week, saying their states are suffering because the federal government has failed to stem the tide of drug smuggling and illegal immigration.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said this week that he saw no immediate need to declare a border emergency in California, but added that he would consider such a move if the situation changed. Others say a declaration of emergency -- which theoretically could earmark state funds for border counties -- is needed now.
"I don't know how anyone can say that we have the border under control in California," said state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside).
The declarations by New Mexico Gov. Janet Napolitano and Arizona Gov. Bill Richardson freed up a combined $2.2 million to eight border counties in those states. Morrow said any emergency funds in California should go, in part, toward creating a state border police force.
Dianne Jacob, a San Diego County supervisor, said she doesn't think the effort by the governors of Arizona and New Mexico will work. County supervisors declared their own state of emergency in 1994, she said, because illegal immigration was costing the county tens of millions of dollars in hospital services and law enforcement.
But she said she would support Schwarzenegger if he declared an emergency. Such a measure, she said, would send a strong message to federal lawmakers.
"This is not an issue where we need political grandstanding, we need action," said Jacob. "If people could see what's happening on our border today, they would be appalled."
By many measures, conditions on California's 142-mile border with Mexico have improved.
In 1995, the number of apprehensions in the San Diego border region peaked with 524,000 arrests of migrants. Since October, apprehensions along the entire California border have totaled about 150,000, compared with more than 500,000 in Arizona, the nation's busiest illegal immigrant corridor.
The current trend is, in part, a response to a federal crackdown begun 10 years ago in San Diego, called Operation Gatekeeper, which sealed much of the border with 14 miles of fencing and stadium lighting. Hundreds of Border Patrol agents were deployed. The measures pushed illegal immigration to the backcountry and desert east of San Diego, and later to Arizona and New Mexico.
While the number of crossings has shrunk, assaults against Border Patrol agents and drug seizures have increased sharply this year. Border Patrol agents say smugglers have become more aggressive, and regularly throw rocks at them. One agent was injured this summer when suspected drug smugglers opened fire at his vehicle with high-caliber weapons.
Still, crime along the border remains below those levels of a decade ago.
"Over the past several years there has been a dramatic decrease in arrests as well as border-related crime, which has increased the quality of life for the community," said Mario Villarreal, a Border Patrol spokesman.
But for many, the border remains a dangerous place.
Residents say groups of immigrants regularly cross their properties, leaving trails of trash and clothing. Some of the paths, they say, are marked with graffiti of gangs that smuggle drugs and people.
"The border is completely porous, wide open," said Gerald Swisher, 45, a part owner of a 30-acre ranch in Campo, Calif. "And we're only one hour from San Diego and a couple of hours from Los Angeles."
Wanting to bring attention to the issue, a Minuteman-like group staged a three-week patrol in July in the rugged backcountry near Campo. The handful of volunteers was outnumbered by protesters and Border Patrol agents, but observers said it was just a preview of a larger patrol planned by a better-organized group on Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day.
Last week, a forum on illegal immigration in Carlsbad drew hundreds of demonstrators, many blaring angrily at each other with bullhorns. Standing watch were 150 police in riot gear.
The forum's sponsor, Morrow, said the event reflected the rising passions on the issue of illegal immigration. Inside the auditorium, people cheered when Robert Vasquez, a county commissioner from Idaho, told the crowd they were political soldiers in a "war against the invasion of illegal aliens."
Outside, dozens of protesters denounced them as racists, and waved signs saying "No one is illegal."