Washington accused of building a Berlin Wall

Border skirmishes: 'Independent' writers report from both sides of the frontier on the immigration battle
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The Independent Online

Chula Vista, California

As midnight approaches on the border south of San Diego, the great game gets under way. Groups of mostly Mexican immigrants mill around campfires, hovering in the shadow of the corrugated- iron wall, waiting for the moment to make their run.

They watch, and are watched, by 1,500 border patrolmen. Guarding the busiest sector for illegal crossings in the country, the border-patrol agents are armed with night scopes and ground sensors, backed up by old- fashioned tracking and the 100-yard sprint.

Just behind the front line, Tod Padgett zooms his night-vision camera in on a wriggling cluster of black shadows as he guides two patrols in a pincer movement. "Go into the six-ten field for me and fan south," he radios. "Got a bunch pushing up in the six-12 area.'' The shadow splits into a swarm of darting figures."It turned into about 10-plus," he warns. "They're going to bush up on us."

Sure enough, the figures drop down, scrabbling for cover in the arid flat land, but the patrols close in and report their catch: nine "aliens" neatly netted.

The Clinton administration announced amid great fanfare this month its latest initiative to tighten the screws on the south-west border. In the past three years President Bill Clinton has attempted to wrest the issue of resentment against illegal immigrants from Republicans who have fanned it, notably Governor Pete Wilson of California. The Republican convention comes to San Diego in August.

It is commonly said that while Senator Bob Dole can win the US presidency without California's 54 electoral votes, President Clinton cannot. That explains why border patrol agents who rode mostly in battered sedans two years ago now drive gleaming white Broncos and jolting Chevy Suburbans. Attorney-General Janet Reno promised to push the number of agents beyond their record high of 5,400, and to enlist army units and local police.

Mexicans complain it is the militarisation of the border. Agents on the ground are cheerful about the political manoeuvring, because the border patrol, once the unglamorous underdog of US law-enforcement agencies, is suddenly a career full of opportunities. "Reno is popular," said Mr Padgett. "We were at the bottom of the totem pole for such a long time.'' A few years ago, the border was chaotic and murderously violent, and the huge flow of immigrants virtually unimpeded. Near the Pacific coast the fringes of suburban San Diego were a short easy dash from Tijuana, Mexico. Now the scene is inevitably reminiscent of Cold War Berlin. A wall made from the corrugated iron of old military airfields, and illuminated by arc lights, ribbons inland.

The white Broncos wait atop the mesas. Agents are in helicopters overhead and dart around in rubber boats in the swampy shoreline. The border patrol has its own Checkpoint Charlie on Interstate 5 running north of San Diego to Los Angeles. Last week dogs sniffed out a group of 30 immigrants squashed into in a wooden compartment. Wired for fans and lighting, it was built into a heavy truck behind bags of dirt and accessible only through a trapdoor. On a clear night with all their gadgetry, the agents seem to have the upper hand.

Immigrant smugglers have reportedly doubled their prices to around $700 (pounds 450) for a guide and transport, and are forced on to longer, tougher trails through mountains to the east that rise to 4,500 feet.

One night last week 2,100 people were caught here, amid a seasonal New Year's push to the California farm fields. Last year 540,000 were apprehended. But the agents know that most - after their fingerprints and faces are efficiently captured on computer scanners - will simply keep trying. When caught, they usually give up without a struggle.

"You've got to treat it like the aliens treat it, like it's a big game," said one. "Because if you are frustrated you are going to make mistakes."

Hanging over the wall with a group of about 20 people, Luz Maria, 27, teases the men on the American side who are likely to be running her down in a few hours. "Are you going to give us a lift?" she calls. She's safer with the border patrol than the Mexican police, she said. Luz Maria went back to Mexico to see her 10-year-old son after seven years in a Los Angeles sweatshop. "It's for the gringos' benefit," she said. "I worked 12 and a half hours, no overtime."