Once, the barren mesas and shrub-covered canyons that extend east of the Pacific Ocean held the most popular routes for illegal immigrants heading into the U.S. Dozens at a time sprinted to waiting cars or a trolley stop in San Diego, passing border agents who were too busy herding others to give pause.
Now, 20 years after that onslaught, crossing would mean scaling two fences (one topped with coiled razor wire), passing a phalanx of agents and eluding cameras positioned to capture every incursion.
The difference, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on a recent tour, is like "a rocket ship and a horse and buggy."
In pure numbers it is this: Where border agents made some 530,000 arrests in San Diego in fiscal year 1993, they had fewer than 30,000 in 2012.
There is no simple yardstick to measure border security. And yet, as the debate over immigration reform ramps back up, many will try.
"Secure the border first" has become not just a popular mantra whenever talk turns to reform but a litmus test for many upon which a broader overhaul is contingent.
"We need a responsible, permanent solution" to illegal immigration, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is working to develop a reform plan, said in his State of the Union response this month. "But first," he added, "we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws."
In fact, the 1,954-mile border with Mexico is more difficult to breach than ever. San Diego is but one example.
Two decades ago, fewer than 4,000 Border Patrol agents manned the entire Southwest border. Today there are 18,500. Some 651 miles of fence have been built, most of that since 2005.
Apprehensions, meantime, have plummeted to levels not seen since the early 1970s — with 356,873 in FY2012. Compare that to 1.2 million apprehensions in 1993, when new strategies began bringing officers and technology to border communities in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Now sensors have been planted, cameras erected, and drones monitor the borderlands from above.
But for those who live and work in communities along the international boundary, "secure" means different things. In Arizona, ranchers scoff at the idea. In New Mexico, locals worry about what's heading south in addition to flowing north. And in Texas, residents firmly believe that reform itself would finally help steady the flow of people and drugs.
These places have been transformed. Sealed? No. But as one border mayor asked: "How secure is secure?"
SAN DIEGO: From "banzai runs" to Brooks Brothers
Don McDermott spent most of his 21 years in the Border Patrol working the San Diego sector. He remembers the "banzai runs," when hordes of immigrants would storm inspection booths at one international crossing, scattering as they ran past startled motorists.
Back then, migrants crossed with audacity — even played soccer on U.S. soil as vendors hawked tamales and tacos. The "soccer field" was too dangerous to patrol, so agents positioned themselves a half-mile out, waiting for nightfall when groups would make a run for freedom.
"Hopefully you would catch more people that you saw going past you," said McDermott, who retired in 2008. "You caught who you could and knew they would be back before the night was over."
The tide turned when the U.S. government launched "Operation Gatekeeper" in 1994, modeled on a crackdown the previous year in El Paso, Texas. The effort brought 1,000 additional agents to San Diego. They parked their trucks against a rusting 8-foot-high fence made of Army surplus landing mats, and refused to yield an inch. They called it "marking the X."
As apprehension numbers fell, home values skyrocketed. In 2001, an outlet mall opened right along the border. It now counts Brooks Brothers, Polo Ralph Lauren and Coach as tenants.
More than manpower helped to shut down the path into San Diego. An 18-foot-high steel mesh fence extending roughly 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean was completed in 2009, with razor wire topping about half of it. A dirt road traversing an area known as "Smugglers Gulch," which border agents had to navigate slowly, was transformed into a flatter, all-weather artery at a cost of $57 million.
This past year the Border Patrol's San Diego sector, which covers 60 miles of land border, made fewer arrests than in any year since 1968. Agents averaged 11 arrests each, a change that marvels veterans. Agents today may even pursue just one crosser over several shifts.
"I'm not going to say it's impossible, but it's a lot more difficult to cross the border here," said agency spokesman Steven Pitts.
After Gatekeeper, smugglers tried new tactics. They pelted agents with rocks, hoping to create an opening for a mad dash when other agents rushed to help. Or one group would jump the fence to draw agents' attention long enough for another to try its luck.
Now, other threats have emerged. U.S. authorities identified 210 human and drug smuggling attempts at sea during FY2012, up from 45 four years earlier. A Coast Guardsman died in December when a suspected smuggling vessel struck him.
And nearly all of more than 70 drug smuggling tunnels found along the border since October 2008 have been discovered in the clay-like soil of San Diego and Tijuana, some complete with hydraulic lifts and rail cars. They've produced some of the largest marijuana seizures in U.S. history.
Still, few attempt to cross what was once the nation's busiest corridor for illegal immigration. As he waited for breakfast at a Tijuana migrant shelter, Jose de Jesus Scott nodded toward a roommate who did. He was caught within seconds and badly injured his legs jumping the fence.
Scott, who crossed the border with relative ease until 2006, said he and a cousin tried a three-day mountain trek to San Diego in January and were caught twice. Scott, 31, was tempted to return to his wife and two young daughters near Guadalajara. But, with deep roots in suburban Los Angeles and cooking jobs that pay up to $1,200 a week, he will likely try the same route a third time.
"You need a lot of smarts and a lot of luck," he said. "Mostly luck.
"It's a new world."
EL PASO, Texas: Steel bars still up; crossings and crime down
Burglar bars still protect many a home in the Chihuahuita neighborhood near downtown El Paso, a reminder of a time when immigrant crossers would break in looking for food or trying to duck the Border Patrol. Carmen Silva recalls those days. At 90, she tells of migrants hiding under cars and in backyards. Now, she says: "Nobody comes through anymore."
Patricia Rayjosa has lived in the same neighborhood as Silva for the past 18 years. Once, she said, migrants crossed 30, 40, 50 at a time to overwhelm agents standing watch. Others swam across the Rio Grande or waded north on tire tubes.
"One morning, as I went out to feed my dogs, I found ... wire cutters. I didn't see them but I could tell they went across my backyard," said Rayjosa, 53. But she agrees with Silva's assessment. Now, "It's not easy to cross."
In the early 1990s, El Paso ran second to San Diego in the number of illegal immigrants coming north. Then, in 1993, the Border Patrol launched "Operation Hold the Line," the first of a series of enforcement actions intended to gain "operational control" of the Southwest border.
It was a shift in strategy from apprehending migrants already in the U.S. to preventing entry in the first place, and the effect was almost immediate: Within months, illegal crossings in El Paso went from up to 10,000 a day to 500, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 1994 called "BORDER CONTROL: Revised Strategy Is Showing Some Positive Results."
Burglaries in neighborhoods like Chihuahuita decreased. Car thefts went down. And, as happened later in San Diego, apprehensions plunged: from nearly 286,000 in 1993 to about 9,700 last fiscal year in the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which encompasses 268 miles from West Texas across New Mexico. (Border Patrol staffing in the sector went from 608 agents in 1993 to more than 2,700 today.)
To El Paso Mayor John Cook, hinging reform to continued calls for a "secure border" seems absurd given the changes in his city.
"It is as secure as it has ever been. How secure is secure?" he said. "Some people who come with these ideas have no idea.
"I wish they would come down here and see."
But you don't have to drive too far into the New Mexico desert to see problems.
Marcus Martinez, the police chief in Lordsburg, N.M., recalled an incident in January where a local hotel manager stepped out to have a cigarette and saw a convoy of vehicles speeding through town. Four cars were eventually stopped — 80 miles north of the border — and 6 tons of marijuana were seized.
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