Walled Off

Along one stretch of the border, the flow of illegal immigrants has nearly stopped. But it didn’t require concrete and razor wire—just a plan that officials had thought was impossible.

May 2006By Comments

“WELCOME TO THE INSANITY,” says the secretary for Judge Dennis Green, rolling her eyes in the direction of the federal courtroom in Del Rio where the morning session is set to begin. Inside, it is immediately clear what she means: Jammed like tinned herring into every available space are roughly ninety illegal immigrants. They are dark-skinned, mostly in their twenties, and overwhelmingly male. They wear cheap clothes and expressions that range from confusion to stony neutrality. They smell of stale sweat. When Judge Green enters, the prisoners all stand, and when he motions for them to sit, they do so in unison, which causes the manacles on their wrists, ankles, and waists to make a loud metallic clang.

One by one, prisoners shuffle glumly forward to face the judge. Most plead guilty through a translator, and then their court-appointed lawyers read aloud brief accounts of their lives. These amount to profiles, in miniature, of the humanity that is pouring across our international border. One man who was caught crossing the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass is 21 years old, married, and has a 17-month-old daughter. He was making only $7 a day in El Salvador and was traveling to New York City, where he had hoped to make money to care for his sick parents. A 23-year-old man from Guatemala is single, has a ninth-grade education, and was making $5 a day working in the fields. He is simply looking for a better life. Another Salvadoran is a trained mechanic who was bound for North Carolina, hoping to save enough money to return home and build a house. Three Mexicans have criminal records in this country, and another prisoner is said to be a member of a violent gang, though he claims to have quit. There are ranch hands, chauffeurs, law students, chicken processors, roofers, and landscapers. When the judge asks if they want to say anything on their behalf, they all apologize for having broken U.S. law.

They have been brought to Del Rio to be charged with illegal entry into the United States, and if they seem confused, they have good reason. Until late last year, most of the illegal aliens who were apprehended were either summarily returned to Mexico or, if they were citizens of other countries (OTMs, or “other than Mexicans”), given a notice to appear in court at a later date and set free. The latter policy was known, usually pejoratively, as “catch and release.” Crossing the border was regarded by many as a game, a formality, or a joke, especially by the OTMs. But now everything has changed: No one is being released. The people in the courtroom have been detained, incarcerated in county jails, shackled, and transported on prison buses to their arraignment on criminal charges. Later that day, they will be sentenced to between 30 and 180 days in jail, after which they will be put on a plane or a bus, deported, and informed that if they try to enter the United States illegally again, they may be charged with a felony.

They couldn’t have known it at the time, but they’d all had the misfortune to cross the Rio Grande at what is now ground zero in the government’s all-new, souped-up, no-quarter-given war on illegal immigration. Since December 12, the Border Patrol has quietly put into place a program known as Operation Streamline II along a fifty-mile section of border roughly bound by Del Rio and Eagle Pass. Its mission is simple and without precedent: to prosecute and jail all illegal border crossers (except parents with children) and then ship them back to their country of origin. It is the most extreme experiment thus far in Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff’s wildly ambitious plan to secure the border in the next few years, and as millions of Americans hit the streets to protest proposed immigration laws, it is being closely watched in Washington. Nothing as draconian as OS II has ever been attempted, and that’s what makes the program so interesting. Even more interesting, it seems to be working.

WHY SHOULD THIS PLAN succeed when so many other cockeyed, shortsighted, underfunded, and politically sabotaged schemes have failed over the past thirty years? To find out, I went to see Border Patrol field operations supervisor Randy Clark, who has been chasing down illegals for eighteen years and is one of the key players on the front lines of OS II. “The simple answer to that question,” says Clark, whose office is in the Border Patrol’s station in Eagle Pass, a few hundred yards from Mexico, “is that we now have the ability to provide long-term detention for everyone caught. We have never been able to do that before.”

Behind every jailhouse bed, of course, is a minor logistical nightmare involving a host of federal and local agencies, each with its own turf and chain of command. No one thought it was possible, prima facie, to take the one million illegal immigrants who are caught crossing the Rio Grande each year and find lawyers, judges, courtrooms, marshals, beds, meals, toilets, transport, jailers, and prison cells for all of them. OS II tries to solve those problems in two ways. First, the agents at the Del Rio sector of the Border Patrol persuaded the Department of Homeland Security to fund the venture. Second, they managed to convince their superiors in Washington that they could get federal prosecutors, courts, judges, local prisons and jails, the U.S. Marshals, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and other officials to work together. And though the courthouse is mobbed—and workloads for many federal lawyers and immigration workers have tripled—so far that is exactly what OS II has shown that it can do.

Still, OS II is a local plan covering a tiny section of the border. Surely, I say to Clark, there is no way they can run a million people through that system. “We won’t have to,” he says, smiling confidently. “Once you get over the initial shock to the system, the numbers go down very quickly.” What he means is that, if you can make the system work for a while, word will get out that illegal immigrants are being prosecuted and the rate of crossings will drop precipitously. If that happens, Clark says, you will need nowhere near one million beds. “That’s the key to making it work in the long run.”

To prove it, he shows me a sheet of numbers comparing apprehensions by the Eagle Pass station from the first two months of 2005 with the first two months of 2006. The results are astounding: Arrests are down by 42 percent, and apprehensions of OTMs are off a whopping 72 percent. Brazilians, who were crossing in droves last summer, have disappeared. Just as interesting, narcotics seizures over that same period went from $1.9 million in 2005 to $3.9 million in 2006, a 105 percent increase. That is also because of OS II. “When you had catch and release, it would take agents as much as two hours to process each alien,” Clark says. “They had to fill out thirty to forty pages of forms. You had to transport them, babysit them, feed them nine hundred meals a day. Who does that best serve? The narcotics smuggler, because there is less manpower on patrol.” Under the new program, illegals are arrested and taken immediately to jail, then to the courthouse, which shifts most of the paperwork and babysitting away from the field agents.

As I drive with Clark along dirt roads and canebrake near the riverbanks south of town, it does seem as though the border is under control. That is a far cry from the year 2000, when illegals were running loose in the streets of Eagle Pass and 81,000 people were apprehended (this year that number will be considerably less than 30,000). Just last year, when OTMs crossed the river by the hundreds daily, they happily surrendered to the Border Patrol because they knew they would be released. Some even clamored to be the first to get into the Suburbans to catch a ride to the station. Now there is not only the tough prosecution policy but also an enormous technological investment in pole-mounted cameras, sensors, and other surveillance equipment, which allow the Border Patrol to identify practically all river crossers.

In addition to the drop in apprehensions (the main measure of how many people are actually crossing the Rio Grande), both Clark and his superiors report a noticeable boost in morale for the Border Patrol, with no increase in manpower. “Our agents have a mandate to secure the border, and this is allowing them to do that,” says Michael DeBruhl, an assistant chief patrol agent in the Del Rio sector. “The situation we had before has completely ceased to exist.” Still, there is no proof that they can make it work on a large scale, with all of the bureaucratic collaboration that implies and all of the money it will require. As with other successful local border initiatives in the past decade, tightening in one sector means failure in another, and the Yuma, Arizona, area of the border is now experiencing a major surge in illegal border crossings. But there is reason to believe that prosecution works. A second offense may result in a felony—meaning up to twenty years in prison—and for Mexicans looking to support their families with periodic work in the United States, that is a long time with no earnings. For residents of Central and South America who have spent thousands of dollars getting to the country, it is an economic disaster.

OVER THE PAST THREE YEARS, no resident of Eagle Pass has been more affected by the flood of immigrants than Father Jim Loiacono, the pastor of a tidy, brown-brick Catholic church near the border called Our Lady of Refuge. Known to everyone as Father Jim, he is short, bespectacled, passionate, and unconventional. He is also famous as the priest who shelters illegals and as the keeper of a now-celebrated fiberglass statue of the crucified Jesus that was found in the Rio Grande last year. Because the statue was, in Father Jim’s words, “wet, homeless, and without papers,” he named it Cristo Indocumentado—the Undocumented Christ. The story was covered by Telemundo, appeared in media all over Latin America, and is seen as a minor miracle by many Catholics, who visit the church by the thousands. In the past few years, Father Jim’s church has been full of illegals, often arriving shivering and hungry and sleeping in his pews and church hall. There were so many of them, he said, “that we had to limit the time they could stay to three days.” But those days are gone. Since the start of OS II, hardly any immigrants land on his doorstep. “The dropoff has been amazing,” Father Jim said. “Very dramatic. To give you an example, on New Year’s Day 2005, we had twenty-four undocumented people here. On January 1, 2006, we had nobody. Now we are getting just a trickle.”

Most of the people who showed up at his door were OTMs who had been caught by the Border Patrol and then released pending a future hearing. Father Jim and his nuns and several parishioners provided clothing, food, free telephone calls, and help getting money from relatives through Western Union. “People were so desperate and so needy,” he said. “They would arrive frozen or with cactus needles in them. We couldn’t just sit here and do nothing.” Eagle Pass, as it turned out, had become known all over Latin America as a place that more or less automatically released OTMs. The numbers of such people hit record levels in 2005. Known criminals would be held and prosecuted, as would people who had been caught one too many times crossing the border. Almost everyone else went free.

But OS II means that such people are no longer being released. Instead, they are being hauled in handcuffs to Del Rio, fifty miles upstream, where they are swept up into the mass arraignments that have become commonplace at the federal courthouse. The few stragglers Father Jim now sees are mostly people from Central America who somehow made it through the formidable riverbank dragnets. On the day I went to his church, he was harboring two such people, a Honduran woman named Maria and her seven-year-old son. Her husband, a legal immigrant working in Florida, had paid a coyote $6,000 to get the two of them through Mexico and across the U.S. border. She and her son nearly suffocated in a trailer in southern Mexico and were later abandoned by the coyote in Piedras Negras, the pleasant Mexican town of more than 200,000 across the river from Eagle Pass. They crossed the river at midday and were given a ride to Our Lady of Refuge by a Good Samaritan. Under the new rules, the two would not be prosecuted or thrown into jail (because of the child) but would be detained for two to three weeks under another tough new policy, known as “expedited removal.” Then they would be flown back to Honduras, $6,000 lighter and no closer to reuniting with Maria’s husband. “We are really flummoxed about what to do at this point,” said Father Jim, who had not told the Border Patrol about his guests. “We just don’t know.”

For now, one of Our Lady of Refuge’s most important missions has become suddenly irrelevant, and Father Jim confessed to mixed emotions on the subject. “The new policy has made life quieter, in a certain sense,” he said. “I do think it is right to control the border, but we also have to be conscious of our duty as Christians.” Unless something changes, he said he may have to consider what to do with money he has received to provide food and clothing for illegals, much of it through a collection box next to the statue of the Cristo Indocumentado. If the Border Patrol has its way, that day may come very soon.

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