‘‘I'm not going to say it’s impossible, but it’s a lot more difficult to cross the border here,’’ said agency spokesman Steven Pitts.
After Gatekeeper, smugglers tried new tactics. They pelted agents with rocks, hoping to create an opening for a mad dash when other agents rushed to help. Or one group would jump the fence to draw agents’ attention long enough for another to try its luck.
Now, other threats have emerged. U.S. authorities identified 210 human and drug smuggling attempts at sea during FY2012, up from 45 four years earlier. A Coast Guardsman died in December when a suspected smuggling vessel struck him.
And nearly all of more than 70 drug smuggling tunnels found along the border since October 2008 have been discovered in the clay-like soil of San Diego and Tijuana, some complete with hydraulic lifts and rail cars. They've produced some of the largest marijuana seizures in U.S. history.
Still, few attempt to cross what was once the nation’s busiest corridor for illegal immigration. As he waited for breakfast at a Tijuana migrant shelter, Jose de Jesus Scott nodded toward a roommate who did. He was caught within seconds and badly injured his legs jumping the fence.
Scott, who crossed the border with relative ease until 2006, said he and a cousin tried a three-day mountain trek to San Diego in January and were caught twice. Scott, 31, was tempted to return to his wife and two young daughters near Guadalajara. But, with deep roots in suburban Los Angeles and cooking jobs that pay up to $1,200 a week, he will likely try the same route a third time.
‘‘You need a lot of smarts and a lot of luck,’’ he said. ‘‘Mostly luck.
‘‘It’s a new world.’’
EL PASO, Texas: Steel bars still up; crossings and crime down
Burglar bars still protect many a home in the Chihuahuita neighborhood near downtown El Paso, a reminder of a time when immigrant crossers would break in looking for food or trying to duck the Border Patrol. Carmen Silva recalls those days. At 90, she tells of migrants hiding under cars and in backyards. Now, she says: ‘‘Nobody comes through anymore.’’
Patricia Rayjosa has lived in the same neighborhood as Silva for the past 18 years. Once, she said, migrants crossed 30, 40, 50 at a time to overwhelm agents standing watch. Others swam across the Rio Grande or waded north on tire tubes.
‘‘One morning, as I went out to feed my dogs, I found ... wire cutters. I didn’t see them but I could tell they went across my backyard,’’ said Rayjosa, 53. But she agrees with Silva’s assessment. Now, ‘‘It’s not easy to cross.’’
In the early 1990s, El Paso ran second to San Diego in the number of illegal immigrants coming north. Then, in 1993, the Border Patrol launched ‘‘Operation Hold the Line,’’ the first of a series of enforcement actions intended to gain ‘‘operational control’’ of the Southwest border.
It was a shift in strategy from apprehending migrants already in the U.S. to preventing entry in the first place, and the effect was almost immediate: Within months, illegal crossings in El Paso went from up to 10,000 a day to 500, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 1994 called ‘‘BORDER CONTROL: Revised Strategy Is Showing Some Positive Results.’’
Burglaries in neighborhoods like Chihuahuita decreased. Car thefts went down. And, as happened later in San Diego, apprehensions plunged: from nearly 286,000 in 1993 to about 9,700 last fiscal year in the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which encompasses 268 miles from West Texas across New Mexico. (Border Patrol staffing in the sector went from 608 agents in 1993 to more than 2,700 today.)
To El Paso Mayor John Cook, hinging reform to continued calls for a ‘‘secure border’’ seems absurd given the changes in his city.
‘‘It is as secure as it has ever been. How secure is secure?’’ he said. ‘‘Some people who come with these ideas have no idea.
‘‘I wish they would come down here and see.’’
But you don’t have to drive too far into the New Mexico desert to see problems.
Marcus Martinez, the police chief in Lordsburg, N.M., recalled an incident in January where a local hotel manager stepped out to have a cigarette and saw a convoy of vehicles speeding through town. Four cars were eventually stopped — 80 miles north of the border — and 6 tons of marijuana were seized.
Patrick Green of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office in Lordsburg, said northbound traffic is only part of the problem. Even as people and drugs are smuggled north, guns and money are flowing back south. He deals with constant reports by homeowners and ranchers about break-ins.Continued...