The Bored Patrol

Border Patrol agents in South Texas contend they are getting paid to stay put as illegal immigrants go around them. Is this how the much-hyped crackdown along the Rio Grande is supposed to work?

The agent casts a bleary eye over the Rio Grande toward the sallow glow of downtown Matamoros. It's after 1 a.m. on this balmy May night. Sitting in his SUV on a bluff beside Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, the fleshy Hispanic fellow wears the dull expression of a convenience store clerk on the graveyard shift -- not the hard stare of a soldier on the front lines against illegal immigration.

"Not a whole lot to do," he says. Rather than waste eight perfectly good hours, the young agent sometimes brings along homework. With his free time on duty with the U.S. Border Patrol, he has made solid headway toward a college degree.

Calm prevails up and down the line. It's the kind of pregnant calm that only a military-style occupation can deliver. Every quarter-mile or so along the dirt roads that snake between the river and the city sits a white-and-green Ford Expedition with an agent inside. Stadium-style lights line the straight levee road, blasting away the darkness and attracting nations of insects. Completing the full-court press against Latin America's poor are elevated observation posts fitted with night-vision scopes.

For agents, who signed up to fight off the smugglers, bandits and migrants who once flooded these parts, the foe is simple, insidious boredom. Conversation-starved, they venture off to visit their neighbors, shooting the bull through open windows. They guzzle coffee, chew tobacco and suck sunflower seeds to stay awake. One reserved fellow has his Bible. Another says he tunes in to Rush Limbaugh. Rumors abound about brazen agents who sneak small TV sets onto the line during football season.

Agent Lucky Fish hasn't encountered an undocumented immigrant in days, but that doesn't stop the 38-year-old from the Texas Hill Country from periodically checking the ground for footprints. West of downtown, Chris Ramnes, a chiseled 34-year-old Kentucky native, has just emerged mud-streaked from the carrizo-strewn bank where he checked a tripped motion sensor. Probably just a nutria foraging or something, he guesses, sounding disappointed.

Some say this is the peace of a border reclaimed. Operation Rio Grande commenced four years ago, bringing scores of new agents with high-tech gear. They marched in like a conquering army and have since turned back the tide of migrants that once washed over Brownsville en route to Houston and elsewhere. Having secured the city and surrounding areas, the patrol is steadily moving upriver and eventually will link with similar crackdowns across the Southwest to take back the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican frontier. That's the dream, anyway.

There are men and women in Border Patrol green who believe they have become high-dollar mannequins in a bankrupt window-dressing campaign. Thousands of immigrants still are coming in through South Texas, they argue. The Border Patrol is just catching fewer.

"Apprehensions are down because they're going around us and we're not moving around to make more apprehensions," says Danny Ramirez, a Border Patrol union official and veteran agent in Port Isabel. "You're up there in Houston. Can you actually tell me there's a decrease [in the number of illegal immigrants]?"

The agent got the call in early 1998 to work Operation Doorstop, an ongoing campaign in Raymondville to choke off a notorious smuggling route along U.S. Highway 77. He was excited. Doorstop meant lots of tracking in the brush and patrolling highways and back roads. In the past, the detail had netted as many as 3,500 migrants a month. Once again, agents were reaping a bounty. They were dumbfounded when it got shut down after only two weeks.

"All I know is that they started the operation, we were making arrests and they stopped it," he recalls, speaking on condition of anonymity. He cites the case as a deliberate attempt by supervisors to keep officers from catching undocumented immigrants.

Why the Border Patrol would even conceivably aim for something so contradictory to its mission goes to the heart of Operation Rio Grande, one of a wave of new crackdowns that have radically changed agency strategy. In the past, the Border Patrol focused on capturing migrants after they illegally entered the United States. But El Paso's Operation Hold-the-Line in 1993 ushered in an era of deterrence with a colossal buildup of fences, lights and new agents.

The idea was to keep undocumented workers from crossing into the city where they could easily blend in with crowds. The following year, a similar operation came to San Diego, long the scene of storming hordes and overwhelmed agents. In August 1997 the Border Patrol launched Operation Rio Grande in Brownsville.

The strategy transformed the role of an agent. Gone were the free-ranging days spent "cutting sign," the art of tracking prey in the brush. Now most agents would be confined to specific areas on the front line.

The profound shift also required a new way of measuring success. The Border Patrol used to equate a high number of apprehensions with effectiveness -- a kind of "body-count mentality," in the words of Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. That changed with the deterrence-based initiatives. To rate as successful, an operation like Rio Grande would have to produce fewer arrests, since fewer people presumably would be crossing illegally into the United States.

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