texasmonthly.com: You originally went to Eagle Pass to write about Father Jim Loiacono and the undocumented immigrants who sought shelter at Our Lady of Refuge Church. What caused you to shift the focus of your story?
S. C. Gwynne: I discovered that most of those undocumented immigrants had disappeared, so the real story was: What happened to all of the illegals?
texasmonthly.com: What is the most challenging aspect of reporting on a controversial issue such as illegal immigration?
SG: In this case, trying to figure out how what I was seeing along a 50-mile stretch of border fit into the larger picture of immigration in America.
texasmonthly.com: How big of a contrast was it interviewing those who enforce Operation Streamline II as compared with people like Father Jim Loiacono, who give aid to undocumented immigrants?
SG: Not as much as you might think. I have always found the Border Patrol to be the most human, sensitive, and caring of the federal agencies, partly because of what they deal with every day. Relations between Father Jim and the BP are good.
texasmonthly.com: In last month’s issue of Texas Monthly, Michael Ennis wrote, “We might be a nation of immigrants, but we’ve always had a last-one-in-bar-the-door attitude about the next immigrant wave.” Did you find any evidence that nativist attitudes played in the development of OS II?
SG: OS II is an attempt to control the border, which most people in this country, Democrats and Republicans, think is a good idea. We have been trying to do this for a long time. But if you bring the border under complete control, you then have to confront the question that raises, Who are you going to let in?
texasmonthly.com: Given the great deal of recent public debate on the subject of immigration, did you find that people were more willing or less willing to talk to you?
SG: Everybody is willing to talk about this subject, and everyone has opinions.
texasmonthly.com: Did you find community support for OS II in the towns where it is in effect?
SG: Yes. While there is general sympathy for immigrants in Eagle Pass, which is 95 percent Hispanic and largely Spanish-speaking, residents still prefer an orderly border situation. In 1999, when 81,000 illegals were caught in that area and tens of thousands more got through, people were more or less running wild in the streets and the locals did not like that. Border Patrol field operations supervisor Randy Clark claims that OS II has allowed his agency to devote more time to other policing activities, such as seizing illegal drugs, instead of having to “baby-sit” undocumented immigrants.
texasmonthly.com: But, as you also note, OS II has increased the workload of government lawyers and immigration caseworkers by threefold. Did you see any evidence of negative impacts of this increased workload on these important positions?
SG: It is very hard to tell. Clearly, OS II is putting huge and unprecedented pressures on the system that handles, processes, jails, and deports these illegals. But the people I talked to along the border seemed to think it was working. How it might work across the entire southwestern border is a whole different question to which no one, at this point, knows the answer.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most memorable interview you conducted while reporting for this story?
SG: Probably Father Jim. He is a fascinating story in his own right—a passionate, engaged, social-justice-oriented priest who finds himself squarely in the middle of the immigration debate.