Mixed Messages: Agents see losing battle, backward policies
Sara A. Carter, Staff Writer

The smuggler wasn't difficult to spot. He sat high on a hillside at a place called Cap Rock, large binoculars in hand, watching U.S. Border Patrol agents below as they policed the Mexican border near San Diego.
His technique is blatant, but it is the modus operandi used by thousands of smugglers along the nearly 2,000-mile southern U.S. border. They no longer hide.

In Arizona, along the Sonoran desert, illegal immigrants pelt Border Patrol agents' vehicles with large rocks. And on occasion, agents have had armed showdowns with Mexican military, who they believe work for drug cartels in border towns along the frontier.

Even in Puerto Rico, where migrants enter by boat and not by foot, illegal immigrants aggressively confront border agents after making it past the U.S. Coast Guard. Boatloads of immigrants rush the shoreline like soldiers – and fight the few agents who patrol the desolate beaches of Mona Island.

Nico is one of the migrants border agents are trying to keep out.

He's a former convict attempting his sixth crossing into the United States. For Nico, the equation is simple: People enter illegally because they know their chances of making it inside are better than they are of getting caught.

The migrants are right, Border Patrol agents say.

In November, Nico, who left his native Nicaragua as a teenager, watched border agents closely from an open tunnel leading to San Diego. Hundreds of illegal immigrants have used this same concrete tunnel to make the crossing, he said.

"If you wait long enough, you know what 'la migra' are doing," Nico whispered, using the Spanish term for immigration and border agents. "We figure out their routes, and when they disappear around the bend, we find our way through (the Tijuana Preserves)."

The migrants know what Border Patrol agents already know – resources are limited, agents lack sufficient manpower, and once the crossing takes place, "if you move fast enough ... you can disappear into the streets and into America."

"Many times la migra can't keep up," Nico added.

It's not just illegal immigrants who pose an elusive target for Border Patrol agents. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) shifting policies about border enforcement have patrol employees perpetually wondering which end is up, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents border agents.

Mixed messages from the White House, DHS officials and high-ranking personnel at Border Patrol field offices have trickled down to the personnel on the ground like bad vinegar, many agents say.

"There was no direction in the aftermath of 9/11," Bonner said. "We expected to see a dramatic change, but it never really happened."

'Glorified security guards'
Border Patrol agents used to be able to operate anywhere inside the United States. For the most part, agents stuck close to the border, but they occasionally would assist in immigration raids elsewhere.

That changed in June 2004, when Border Patrol agents out of the Temecula station conducted "roving patrols" from Ontario to northern San Diego County.

After detaining and questioning nearly 11,000 suspected illegal immigrants and deporting a few hundred of them back to their native countries, the department faced angry criticism from immigrant-rights groups.

DHS responded by outlining new operating procedures for border agents. In two memorandums sent in November 2004, agents were told to not patrol the interior of the United States unless assistance was requested by the Office of Investigations, under Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

According to the memo issued by Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner to Chief David Aguilar of the Border Patrol, the Office of Investigations would be the sole primary responder to any immigration violations inside the United States. Border agents only can be involved if the investigation is within their normal patrol area.

"The problem is the (Office of Investigations) only investigates what it has to, and ICE never answers any of our calls," said an Arizona border agent who spoke under condition of anonymity. "We were no longer able to patrol beyond 50 yards. We've become nothing more than glorified security guards."

Although the memo stated agents can assist at the behest of investigators, the official policy of the DHS requires written approval from the national level before border agents are approved to patrol inside the country.

"It's the equivalent of running a goal-line defense," said Andy Ramirez, head of the Chino-based Friends of the Border Patrol. He compared the agents on the border to football players in a losing game. "It makes no sense at all."

Many agents along the Arizona, Texas and New Mexico borders also say they are frustrated with DHS officials who have not taken their pleas for help seriously.

Ignoring the situation has only made the border more dangerous, said the Arizona agent.

"We do not have the support we need out here," he said. "These aren't just innocent migrants crossing the border, but dangerous criminals. There isn't enough of us to ensure they're not getting in – and believe me, a lot of them are."

"Our agents have been attacked on numerous occasions," added Nicholas Coates, an agent in the Border Patrol's San Diego sector. "A couple of agents have lost their lives in these mountains. It's a dangerous job."

It's a game of "cat and mouse," said Brett Booth, another San Diego-sector agent, "and the mice are winning."

Serving two masters?
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, illegal immigration and the Border Patrol's enforcement procedures have sparked lively conversations across the country, from Capitol Hill to Inland Empire dinner tables.

It hasn't all been just talk. This year alone, thousands of citizens nationwide volunteered for civilian border watch groups. The volunteers patrolled several locations, from the northern Michigan border to the Sonoran desert, hoping to assist agents in the capture of illegal immigrants.

"American citizens are fed up," said Jim Gilchrist of Orange County, a co-founder of the Minuteman civilian border watch group. "Border agents have been left out to dry by an administration that isn't doing a thing to solve the very dangerous situation brewing at the border."

Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the DHS, said the complications are the result of the department's formation in 2003, when the Border Patrol was reorganized along with the former U.S. Customs Office and the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. Agents are still learning to adjust to different routines and policies under the new department – and, as Agen said, "sometimes that's difficult.

"Certainly, any time you create a brand-new agency, and the issues you're dealing with are of such importance, it takes time for things to meld into shape," he said. "The first few years of DHS was a learning experience for everyone."

For its part, the department in recent months has taken numerous steps to improve border security. Hundreds of new officers have been assigned to the Arizona sectors, and the Border Patrol now has 40 aircraft available, up from 18, Aguilar said.

That includes unmanned aerial vehicles, which have led to greater surveillance capabilities, he said. Officials hope to deploy the drones along other parts of the border.

Also, as part of the recently unveiled Border Security Initiative, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff plans to close the three-mile gap in the 14-mile border fence near San Diego. Environmental concerns had held up that portion of the fence for years.

The Border Patrol already uses high-tech equipment – cameras, infrared sensors and motion detectors – to help agents focus more closely on areas where potential illegal immigrants are crossing into the country. Chertoff wants to beef up that capability as well.

"There is a next generation of technology. There are more advanced sensors. ... We want to look at the possibility of satellite technology as enhancing our ability to get greater visibility about what's going on on the border," Chertoff said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. "Some of the stuff the military uses out in the field is adaptable, perhaps, as well, to what we're doing here."

In a November speech about immigration in Tucson, Ariz., President Bush announced his plan for a guest worker program coupled with tighter border security enforcement. Many saw it as an attempt to satisfy both his business supporters, who believe foreign workers help the economy, and his conservative backers, who take a hard line on illegal immigration.

The president aimed his remarks at those conservatives, emphasizing his proposals to secure the border, hire 1,000 more agents and enforce laws on employers who hire illegal immigrants. "I mean, our employers in America have an obligation not to hire illegal immigrants," Bush said. "Many of those immigrants, by the way, use forged documents."

The speech was just the latest verbal twist in a series of mixed messages coming from federal authorities. In fact, it appeared to contradict Homeland Security policy.

A memorandum issued to directors of Customs and Border Protection after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in October asked border agents to make exceptions for illegal immigrants hired to perform relief work.

"If the individual is not in possession of the appropriate passport and visa, the documentary requirements will be waived without fee," the memorandum states.

Border Patrol agents were told that even immigrants from countries of special interest – those with ties to terrorism, such as Iraq, Pakistan and Cuba – were to be given an I-94, a nonimmigrant entry document, allowing them to enter the country as relief workers, as long as they did not pose a terrorist threat.

"Basically, it was a free pass into the United States," said Ramirez of Friends of the Border Patrol. "All you have to do if you're an illegal is say you're here to work with Hurricane Katrina relief."

The president's November speech was viewed with apprehension by many legislators who don't expect to see much change.

"While I applaud the president for hiring more Border Patrol agents, I have to ask why he didn't do it years ago," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., an outspoken opponent of the president's guest worker proposal. He noted that Congress last year approved the hiring of 10,000 new Border Patrol agents, but the president's budget only included funding for a few hundred.

"I am cautiously optimistic that he'll get it right this time, and provide the necessary resources to gain control of our border," Tancredo said.

Policy vs. reality
In recent years, immigration-related talk in Washington has ranged from the controversial guest worker program to the definition of "amnesty" to the 9-11 Commission's recommendations on how to prevent another terrorist attack. Other ideas, such as merging U.S. Customs and Border Protection with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have been gaining momentum in Washington.

Trapped in the center of these debates are the thousands of men and women patrolling the borders. Many of them say that while politicians and other officials in Washington go back and forth on policy proposals, the reality on the ground offers harsh lessons.

Agents recite a litany of causes they perceive as the real reasons border enforcement is so problematic: They have been told to back off from arresting migrants because of pressure from Mexican officials. They release numerous illegal immigrants inside the United States because there's no room for them in detention centers. They've had their powers taken from them by laws that protect illegal migrants and smugglers more than American citizens.

"A lot of times, we risk our lives chasing a group being guided by a smuggler," said Booth, the San Diego agent. "And for what? If it's an American citizen, we can't do much of anything ... We might give him a ride to a casino. Other than that, we release them after two hours."

According to Congressman Gary Miller, R-Brea, the situation on the border poses a significant national security risk.

"There are many issues I agree with our president on," Miller said. "But open borders with another guest worker program, I do not. Our border agents shouldn't have to feel abandoned – their jobs are vitally important to ensuring our security. They are our first line of defense."

Miller helped author the Real I.D. Act, which will create electronically readable, federally approved I.D. cards for Americans in the next three years.

T.J. Bonner, of the Border Patrol union, said politicians are too focused on plans such as the I.D. cards while ignoring the reality facing agents.

"It's the same old list of frustrating policies," he said. "We've had field agents told to sit in the same spot on patrol and told not go after illegal aliens even if they're only a few yards from them. These directives are always by word of mouth from their field office, and not written policy."

Last month, the Border Patrol agent from Arizona spotted 20 illegal immigrants attempting to enter the country from Mexico. They were all crammed into a single truck.

As usual, the agent said, he was patrolling the open border alone.

"I move east," he said. "The illegals move west. And we keep this going for hours, until I can no longer see them."

That day, the truck moved behind a hill and out of the agent's line of sight. Less than half an hour later, it was spotted heading down an Arizona highway by state police, who called it into the Border Patrol field office.

But it already was too late. By the time the truck had reached the highway, the agent no longer had authority to follow and capture the migrants. State police did not have a legal reason to stop the car. The illegal immigrants went free.

"We can see them, but we can't do a thing. How insane is that?" the agent asked.

Bonner said it's part of a larger trend.

"The administration dances to the tune of big business," he said. "Our agents are left to fend for themselves, and our borders are wide open.

"In all reality, it is as if the government does not want to enforce its own laws."