Borders tighten with Clinton’s reforms

Cully Gallagher

Editor’s note: In March 1997, a University freelance writer and photographer went to the United States.-Mexico border to see firsthand government efforts to stem illegal immigration, an issue that affects people even as far north as the state of Minnesota and the University itself.

Chula Vista means “Beautiful View,” but the Chula Vista, Calif. sector of the U.S.-Mexican border, just south of San Diego, is a daunting sight.
Peeking over the 10-foot corrugated steel wall that separates the two countries, a Latin American immigrant sees — beyond the glare of floodlights, only a 30-second sprint away — rolling ridges and narrow, brush-filled arroyos. A mile’s walk north would bring an immigrant to the edge of the San Diego and Los Angeles urban sprawl, to the edge of relatively decent wages in restaurant kitchens and strawberry fields, to the edge of subsistence in the land of opportunity.
But between the immigrant and opportunity waits the U.S. Border Patrol. Shiny Broncos prowl a network of dirt roads and ridgetops. A helicopter sweeps the sky. Squads of four-wheelers patrol the arroyos. Infrared scopes and buried seismic sensors catch what human eyes and ears might miss. An immigrant must wait patiently, watching for an opportune moment.
Crossing the border
Around 2 a.m., less than a mile to the west of Chula Vista, hordes of University of Southern California students on spring break giggle their way back home after a night of living it up in exotic downtown Tijuana. They stumble through the official U.S. port of entry, impeded only by the tequila in their veins.
Around the same time in the Chula Vista sector, illegal immigrants in groups of two, five and 12 clamber over the wall and start running. Some are caught immediately, but that keeps the border patrol busy, improving the odds for the rest.
Some groups make it as far as the edge of the city but are dragged down off chain-link fences and out from under semitrailers. A few groups manage to hide themselves for hours in the arroyos. But as soon as they move, the immigrants are exposed and most are caught.
In one night, along a three-mile stretch of the border, about 50 apprehensions were made; only a handful of the crossers slipped through successfully. The rest of the “aliens,” as patrol officers consistently refer to illegal immigrants, were detained, their identities logged into a computer, and were bused back into Mexico by sunrise.
That night, along the stretch of border running from the ocean to the desert 66 miles east, the border patrol caught more than 1,000 illegal immigrants — an average haul.
The same agents likely saw many of the same faces the next night since nearly all who are caught try to cross again.
Until the early 1990s, an illegal immigrant was caught an average of two times before successfully crossing the border.
Physical borders, legal barriers
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, under President Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper, the U.S. Border Patrol budget has soared from $361.7 million in 1993 to $582.6 million in 1996. This pays for the 14-mile steel wall and other military technology, and more than doubled the number of border patrol agents. Now, illegal immigrants are caught an estimated seven times before a successful crossing.
Border crossers may face more than mathematical odds. Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, charge that Border Patrol officers often abuse illegal immigrants verbally and physically, including some rapes and shootings.
“If we look at the process of human rights and the militarization of the border, human rights abuses went up as much as 3 or 4 times,” said Arcela Nunez Alvarez, a second-year history graduate student at the University. “Some people describe it as a war zone.”
U.S. Border Patrol Public Information Officer Mark Moody said, “After a review … it’s being shown that most of the complaints are frivolous.”
However, the border patrol refuses to release statistical data about investigations and disciplinary actions against officers.
This uncertainty is compounded, Nunez Alvarez said, because “the number of people who file complaints are a really small percentage of the people who are abused.”
An immigrant who makes it across the border, illegally or through official channels, has only begun the struggle. Immigration reform is becoming a barrier as daunting as the physical border. A wave of new immigration laws will likely have a great impact on undocumented immigrants and legal residents alike.
Under Clinton’s immigration reforms, which took effect April 1:
ù Restrictions on political asylum claims;
ù Allowing many illegal immigrants to be expelled without administrative hearing or judicial appeal;
ù Severe restrictions on judicial checks and balances of Immigration and Naturalization Services policies and practices;
ù Requiring U.S. residents who sponsor immigrants to support them at 125 percent of the poverty level until the immigrants become citizens or work in the U.S. for 10 years.
ù Expanding the number of crimes that are grounds for deportation.
The new physical and legal barriers “certainly make life more difficult for people who travel across the border,” said Nunez Alvarez.
Few are deterred from the attempt, she continued, because “the situation people face, in a lot of cases, forces them to make the journey. People have immediate needs that have to be met.”
Roads to Minneapolis
In the central Mexican state of Michoacan during the economic crisis of the early 1980s, Se¤ora Nunez had the immediate need of feeding her six daughters. So she headed to el Norte with the whole family, carrying her 2-year-old across the mountains east of San Diego, where the border patrol relied on the geological barrier and did not patrol heavily.
Twelve years old, speaking only Spanish, Nunez Alvarez soon enrolled in school. While she and her sisters struggled to learn English, her parents scraped by, working domestic and agricultural jobs for well below minimum wage.
The Nunez family’s difficulties were eased a bit when they were granted legal residence status under a 1986 amnesty law. The green cards allowed them to find better-paying, legal work, and Nunez Alvarez started college.
Although as a non-citizen she is ineligible for most scholarships and loans, Nunez Alvarez earned a MacArthur graduate fellowship, a program designed to foster international cooperation. She hopes that as a professor of Chicano and Latino history, she will introduce “a perspective that very few students have.”
More students should take the opportunity to learn from the ethnic diversity at the University, said Arturo, a second-year University undergraduate who preferred to not be identified. Immigrants, he believes, “can teach many things. They have their own perspectives about life, about the world.”
In his South American home, Arturo tried to help support his parents and four brothers and sisters. Even after three years of studying economics at a university, he could only find odd jobs, earning about $50 a month. After hearing about the opportunities and despite the difficulties facing immigrants in the United States, he headed north in 1984, he said, “prepared to take the chance.”
Borrowing $500 from a friend, he hired a coyote — which border patrol agents call an alien smuggler — who guided Arturo across the border near Chula Vista and delivered him safely to Los Angeles.
Until he received a green card under the 1986 amnesty law, Arturo picked citrus fruits and grapes, working 12-hour shifts at $3 an hour. When the growing season ended, he found jobs in factories and gardens.
Although he took English classes, Arturo was surrounded by Spanish speakers and could not improve his language skills. This prompted him to move to Minneapolis, where he studied English as a Second Language and liberal arts at Minneapolis Community College. In 1996, Arturo became a U.S. citizen.
“As humans, we need to find ways to survive … (Immigration is) a historical process, a natural process. The only thing to stop it is to help our countries develop,” Arturo said.
He participated in the University’s Minnesota Studies in International Development program. After graduation next spring, he plans to live in Brazil to work on community development projects.
Although Arturo and Nunez Alvarez have been successful, many others do not fare as well. Arturo explains that, faced with hardship at home, “some people chose to fight revolutions; others turn to crime. Others, like us, move to where we can have a decent life. But that’s not common; most immigrants are treated badly — bad wages, bad living conditions. They are blamed for problems.”
Political posturing
“Immigrants are political scapegoats,” said Nancy Peterson, attorney at the Oficina Legal, or the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
The new immigration reforms have expanded the number of crimes that are grounds for deportation.
An INS press release states, “Of the 23,290 criminal aliens removed (deported) in the first half of the fiscal year, 59 percent were aggravated felons convicted of such crimes as drug trafficking, murder, rape, and armed robbery.”
However, what the INS does not mention is that under the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, any non-citizen sentenced to one year in prison is considered an “aggravated felon” and is subject to deportation. Longtime residents who were convicted of gross misdemeanors, such as simple theft or drug possession, are subject to this clause.
Some people see increasing legal barriers and Operation Gatekeeper as political “posturing, a placebo to calm people’s fear. It’s all motivated by fear; that’s the politicians’ best tool,” said Manuel Guerrero, director of the University’s Chicano/Latino Learning Resource Center.
He said that immigrants, especially Latino populations, are natural targets because they are “primarily different from those in control.”
Mexicans have long been targets of the U.S. government, says Nunez Alvarez: “In the Southwest it has always been the Mexicanos … in the ’20s and ’30s, with the Depression, (government officials) were deporting thousands. Again, after World War II in Operation Wetback, they were rounding up hundreds of thousands and deporting them without regard to human or civil rights.”
According to INS statistics, a little more than half of all illegal immigrants in the United States are Mexican. So far this year, however, Mexicans have made up 74 percent of the INS’s “removals.”
Welfare reforms will likely have a big impact on legal immigrants. More than 8,600 elderly or disabled immigrants in Minnesota will lose their Supplemental Security Income, reducing some people’s sole monthly income from $408 to $203 during the next year and a half. Even more immigrants will be cut off from food stamps.
Although only 5 percent of federal welfare recipients are immigrants, cuts in their benefits will make up 44 percent of government savings under these reforms. Peterson points out that contrary to popular opinion, immigrants tend to use welfare less than U.S.-born citizens.
“I’ve talked to thousands of immigrants, and only two asked me how they could get on welfare … 99.9 percent want to work and want to do it legally,” she said.
Nunez Alvarez received federal Medicaid benefits during the year between the births of her two daughters. Under the welfare reforms, she is no longer eligible, although her husband and daughters are all citizens.
Since legal residents pay all the same taxes as citizens, says Nunez Alvarez, “immigrants are paying into the system 100 percent. But when it comes to getting benefits … it’s the kind of policy that considers people’s contribution only halfway.”
When asked if the United States has an obligation to welcome and assist foreigners, Arturo said, “As a human being, if you see someone dying, dying because they have no water, and you have more than enough water, how will you respond? Will you let them die? No, you will help them. It’s not an obligation, it’s human solidarity.”