Chasing a dream: For Mexicans who try to enter the States illegally in search of a better life, the stakes are high. So are U.S. government costs to stop the flow.

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

ALONG THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER – Elizabeth Sanchez Luna left Mexico City hungering for a job that would pay more than the $45 a week she earned in a bakery.

She fled, on wheels and then on foot, for a chance to support her two children and her parents. A chance for something better, through whatever job she could find in the United States.

But the 29-year-old – dressed in a black sweat shirt and Lycra running pants, lacking a backpack or even a bottle of water – made it just a mile into her dream before U.S. Border Patrol agents stopped her for illegally entering the United States.

“I came to look for a job,” Luna said in Spanish in late July after being fingerprinted in an office trailer in Columbus, just miles from the border. “Any kind of a job.”

In the United States, she predicted, as she pulled back her long hair to release heat from her neck, “I can make in a day what I made in a week.”

Just as Luna would, other immigrants take any job they can find, dashing across the desert for a chance to clean hotels or build homes in Albuquerque or Aspen. To be a sanitation worker in Chicago or a farmhand in North Carolina.

They might send money from those jobs home to relatives, but some people say their presence puts stress on social, educational and health care systems in the United States.

It’s an issue causing waves nationwide – especially in border states like New Mexico.

Gov. Bill Richardson last week declared a state of emergency in four southern New Mexico counties, citing an increase in human and drug smuggling in the 185-mile border between the state and Mexico. Much of the $1.75 million the declaration frees up will go to bolster local and state law enforcement.

Luna, a first-time offender who said she got separated from a friend after stepping into a desolate stretch of southern New Mexico, was the 97th immigrant caught by agents in the area that day. She later was sent back to Mexico.

Her effort – and those of more than 103,000 other immigrants who have been stopped this fiscal year in the El Paso Sector – are keeping Border Patrol agents and borderland residents up all night. They also have kept the federal government pouring out more than $1 billion a year nationwide.

In the sector, which includes two west Texas counties and all of New Mexico, more than 1,200 agents last fiscal year caught 104,430 immigrants. The federal fiscal year runs from October through September.

No one knows for sure how many others have slipped past, although agents estimate they catch anywhere from two-thirds to 95 percent of those who enter.

One way to measure the number they miss is by immigrants’ footprints, said Senior Patrol Agent Ramiro Cordero.

“If we have six (sets of) footprints and we catch four,” he says, “two went somewhere else.”

A flood of danger

Along a cement ditch that funnels water from the Rio Grande to farmers outside El Paso, Cordero spots a blanket rolled up on the Mexican side of the embankment, with a pair of shoes nearby.

“Looks like an encobijado,” he says, using a word that translates as “someone who is rolled up in a blanket” but that on the streets signifies someone killed by criminals.

“They kidnap and torture and roll you up in a blanket and throw you anywhere as a sign,” he said.

From the dirt road along the border he’s patrolling, Cordero looks into another country, watching.

The blanket is picked up by a man on the other side of the river. There’s nothing inside. He wraps it around himself and walks away.

The border is a dangerous, mysterious place: The risks of crossing can be intertwined with the hazard of getting caught in drug, gang or turf wars.

About 600 miles to the southeast of El Paso, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, more than 100 people have been killed this year, including 18 police officers and a city councilor. The U.S. State Department last month extended a travel warning it had issued for American citizens along the border, and the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo shut its doors briefly. In Juarez, hundreds of women have been slain and left to rot in the desert since the early 1990s.

In and around El Paso, another kind of death lurks. Immigrants drown as they try to cross into the United States. Miles to the west, in southern New Mexico, they die of dehydration. This fiscal year, 25 people have died in the sector; 399 have been rescued. In the 2004 fiscal year, 18 people died and 87 were rescued, according to the Border Patrol.

Cordero said the increase in reported deaths this year over last could be because the patrol is keeping better records. But the desert swallows bodies nonetheless.

Cordero, a former El Paso police officer, is tasked with a mighty job: stopping the immigrants who risk it all for a chance at something better.

It’s a job others want to do as well. Civilian members of the Minuteman Project plan to patrol the New Mexico-Mexico border this fall, saying the Border Patrol has not done enough to secure it.

Some Minutemen volunteers say terrorists, specifically members of al-Qaida, could be entering the United States from Mexico.

And while Border Patrol officials hope that won’t happen, they say they’ve got to be on the lookout.

“We have to be vigilant,” Border Patrol spokesman Doug Mosier said.

With seemingly thousands of people desperately wanting in from a variety of countries, the United States has spent billions to keep them out.

A homeland security bill passed by the Senate in July contains funding for an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents.

Already, 300 agents are scheduled to head to the El Paso Sector in the next 12 months, Mosier said.

For now, Cordero and other agents walk the line, searching out lawbreakers and taking them to a detention facility in downtown El Paso. Some agents – members of the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue Team – also rescue those in danger of dying.

With his high-power binoculars, Cordero can see Mexico across from him. In some places, the country is just feet from where he works, but in so many senses, it is worlds away.

Scheming against the schemers

Farther west, in New Mexico’s Luna County, Field Operations Supervisor Jack Jeffreys has binoculars, too.

They allow him to see in the dark, giving him a green, grainy picture of the desert at night. Mammoth moths and jittery jack rabbits dart about. Lights from traffic along the Mexican side of what’s called Border Road sweep light trails over his eyes.

The night-vision goggles are among the high-tech devices the Border Patrol, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, uses.

Agents patrol the border area in SUVs and Hummers. On ATVs and horses. From the air and by bike. They’ve got dogs, mirrors, sensors, cameras.

Name any high-tech surveillance gadget, and the patrol probably has it.

But those who smuggle drugs and people have technology, too.

GPS instruments help them navigate remote and rugged terrain, Jeffreys said. Forget craggy landmarks or dusty meeting places stomped out in the sand. Smugglers use geographical coordinates to decide where to meet and load the cars that whisk immigrants off to new lives.

Apart from technology, criminals also have an arsenal of tricks to enter the United States, Border Patrol officials said.

Some strap carpet strips to the bottom of their shoes so agents can’t follow their footprints in the sand. Some clip cow hooves to their footwear, to leave animal prints in their wake. Some have dressed up as clergy or soldiers, while others have used fake government vehicles, including those of a New Mexico Department of Transportation truck and a Border Patrol unit.

Others have stuffed children into pi?atas or sewn people into car seats to get them through ports of entry.

Less-sophisticated standbys remain: a pair of bolt or wire cutters to take out fences; an immigrant sent to distract agents while others sneak across the cactus-dotted countryside.

Creeping along in his SUV with the lights off, Jeffreys tries to find a small group of immigrants, six or maybe eight, who were spotted by an agent manning the control tower for the cameras that line the border.

He drives through the creosote bush, tumbleweeds and mesquite, steering with one hand and leaning out the window, peering through his night-vision goggles.

The group he is after turned south toward Mexico, the voice on his radio says. Radio traffic, however, crackles with reports of other groups giving it a go in other parts of Jeffreys’ patrol area, which includes 53 miles border miles and 14,000 square miles.

The later it gets, the busier. Immigrant traffic picks up, on public land and on private ranches. Dogs guarding homes bark their owners awake. One rancher 22 miles down the road from the Columbus office estimates 500 immigrants cross his property every 24 hours, leaving a trail of garbage, broken water lines and freed cattle.

As Jeffreys drives, with the lights on now, he has time to reflect on the strange things he has seen, where even at night it’s almost unbearably warm and undeniably lonely.

Smugglers or guides once led a group of more than 150 immigrants through his patrol area, apparently to see if they could get away with it, something more common in busier border states like Arizona, he says.

He talks about the old school buses he says smugglers use to transport immigrants between staging spots on the other side of the fence.

The windows on the passenger portions of the buses are painted black or blocked by dark plastic. When the buses drive west from the town plaza in Palomas, Mexico, to drop people off in a tiny outpost called Las Chepas, mere feet from the United States, agents with binoculars can’t see in.

When the buses drive back east to Palomas, the driver’s side windows are unobscured. The buses are empty.

While Las Chepas looks like little more than an abandoned village, Border Patrol officials say it’s a major staging area for border crossers. Richardson last week called on the Mexican government to bulldoze the area.

In nine years as an agent, Jeffreys has seen many tricks. But he knows there likely will be more.

“I wouldn’t put anything past anybody,” he said.

All for a job

Walking along N.M. 9 the next day, Cruz Alberto stops to talk to the passengers in the first car he has seen since sunrise.

He asks a reporter and a photographer standing outside their SUV where he is and whether there is work nearby.

The stocky immigrant from Tabasco state says he left his town of Villa Hermosa seven days ago and hitchhiked to northern Mexico. The oldest man in his family, Alberto is in charge of his mother and seven sisters and brothers.

He is 29, lost, sunburned, dusty.

Dressed in black because legend has it that Border Patrol won’t be able to see him at night, he didn’t know he had crossed the border.

“It’s not like there was a sign or anything,” he says in Spanish.

He’s carrying an almost-empty bottle of water, as warm as the nearly 100-degree day. He hasn’t slept much and woke up on the desert floor the night before when a rattlesnake slid by his eye, he says.

His job as a delivery driver in Mexico pays $50 to $80 a week.

“It’s not enough to feed potatoes to my family. . . . I just need an opportunity to work.”

Crying for a minute under his black hat with a bent bill, Alberto says he’ll try his luck to get past the Border Patrol, if it means there’s even a possibility he’ll make it to a place with work.

Seven or eight miles from Columbus, 320 from Albuquerque, and likely hundreds more from creating a new life, Alberto keeps walking.

Published Aug.19, 2005.