Trapped in El Norte

Hundreds of East Bay laborers bid wives and children adiós, risked their lives, and blew their savings to pursue the American Dream.

On a chilly Saturday morning, a man named Raúl sits with five or six others along a low wall on Oakland’s East 12th Street, waiting for work that isn’t going to materialize. Clad in muddy boots and well-worn hand-me-downs, they slump against a chain-link fence, squinting at the glare reflecting off the pavement. The wide thoroughfare, which divides residential neighborhoods from the staples of industry and commerce, is nearly barren of traffic on this late morning, and the men wear faces of boredom and dejection. To most people traffic is merely an annoyance, but to Raúl and his compadres it is hope.

Hope not just for them, but for families living in poverty many hundreds or even thousands of miles away, across one border or several. That blue sports utility vehicle heading up the street might be nothing at all. Then again, it could be a homeowner or contractor who needs someone to dig up stumps or strip paint for $10 an hour. Ten dollars an hour! These men come from countries where they are lucky to get that much in a day, in some cases a week. And, contrary to popular belief, food and essentials aren’t much less expensive in Latin America. In a cruel twist of global economies of scale, life’s necessities are in fact cheaper here, the men say. You pay as much for Colgate toothpaste in Bogotá as you do in Berkeley. Here in the United States, at least you can get free meals and a few groceries at the missions and pick up thrift-store ropas for next to nothing.

Every day from 6 a.m. onward, well over a hundred men — plus the occasional woman — turn out on both sides of this stretch of East 12th and its side streets from 29th Avenue to Fruitvale Avenue, all of them eager to trade a day of backbreaking demolition, ditch-digging, painting, landscaping, or whatever needs doing for a fistful of cash on the down-low. This underground economy requires no job applications or Social Security numbers. Work-seekers jump into a prospective employer’s vehicle, leaving the passenger-side door open until terms are negotiated: a fair hourly wage with no taxes withheld and no questions asked, especially the dreaded one: Papeles? Si, tengo papeles, pero no aqui. My papers are at home.

Confidentiality is necessary because the majority, like Raúl, are in the United States illegally, and for that reason are loath to provide their last names for publication. Most are Latinos, twenty to fifty years old, who are doing their best to support a wife and children, or sometimes parents and siblings, back in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Colombia, or elsewhere. Besides their haunt on East 12th, the men can be seen waiting on the streets near various East Bay locales: the Walgreen’s at Foothill and Fruitvale, El Cerrito’s Home Depot, and Truitt & White Hardware in West Berkeley.

Few of the workers speak English, and most of the indigenos, men of diminutive stature from places like Chiapas and Guatemala City, don’t even speak Spanish. The double language barrier makes it even harder for them to find work. As a result, the indigenous laborers are willing to work for less money, causing friction with their Spanish-speaking brethren who would prefer to keep wages up.

There is little work for anyone lately, and certainly not on this particular morning. Still, Raúl and his companions wait. It’s nearing noon and most of the day’s hopefuls already have given up and gone home, but Raúl has nowhere to go. One look at him says as much. His fingernails are chipped, his hands are stained with grime, and the skin on his mustached face has begun to assume the ruddy, leathery texture that’s a hallmark of living on the street.

Indeed, though Raúl’s home is the Mexican state of Michoacán, here he has none. When he arrived in the United States nine months ago he stayed with friends, but hospitality wears thin when you’re not pulling your weight. Within this community of people who peddle their labor on East Bay streets — and the hosts of undocumented workers who toil out of sight in restaurant kitchens, hotels, and nursing homes — living space is extremely tight. “I’ve had families of nine living in a one-bedroom apartment, and at least a couple of others had sleeping space in the living room,” says Leslie Brouillette, an Alameda County public health nurse who serves Oakland’s Fruitvale, San Antonio, and Chinatown districts. “A lot of them don’t have access to cooking facilities. I’ve been to homes without running water, all the things we take for granted.” The upside of crowding is that the rent is cheap — typically $150 to $200 a month. A man might even lease sleeping privileges on afternoons or odd days for less.

Yet Raúl apparently has better uses for his minuscule earnings. He has arrived too late, and not just to find work on this cold Saturday morning. Raúl and others who have come to this country recently are discovering they have missed the gravy train altogether.

Flush with work through the late ’90s building boom, day laborers saw the jobs begin to taper off toward the end of summer as the recession’s effects caught up with the Bay Area. Then came the terror attacks, and with the fall of the mighty towers, so it seemed, went the remainder of their fortunes. Since then, the local day-labor market has been downright stagnant.

While this situation may seem familiar to laid-off East Bay residents, there’s a crucial distinction for immigrant laborers, the lowest tier of the employment hierarchy. Many of them are, for all practical purposes, trapped in the United States. Having risked their lives and left their loved ones in search of opportunity, they now find themselves unable to return home. A tightening border has made the crossing increasingly dangerous and less affordable, and if the men leave it could be years before they save up enough to come back.

Back home the men have families but no hope. Here they have hope, but no work. Few even have the cash to make it home, and if they did, to leave now would mean abandoning any chance for a better life. “I can’t leave. I’ve got nothing there,” says Andrés, a 21-year-old with two sons and a wife in Guatemala. “If I can’t stay here, I won’t be able to pay for anything, for food or the house. But if I don’t get the work, what am I going to do?”

Good Times, Bad Times

When Raúl is asked how he’s faring with work, he responds with an incredulous hand gesture. “Look what we’re eating!” he says in Spanish through a mouthful. He’d been wrapping fried pork rinds in tiny flour tortillas and topping them off with hot sauce from a little plastic cup, the latter items scavenged from a nearby taqueria. The men are supplementing this meager fare with a few raw scallions.

This doesn’t surprise Brouillette, a kindly faced blond woman with a motherly vibe who visits with the laborers twice a week at the Oakland day labor center. The center, run by the nonprofit Volunteers of America under contract with the city, is housed on East 12th Street in an old brick building, apparently a former bank branch where the antiquated vault has been transformed into a supply closet. “We see a lot of hunger and poor nutrition,” says Brouillette. “I think a lot of the workers are weak. Very few of them get the equivalent of three meals a day.”

Brouillette and fellow nurse Gwen Alcazar, who monitors tuberculosis for Alameda County, also see a lot of occupational injuries — thrown backs, injured feet, knees, and eyes. “They tend to be fairly chronic due to poor access to health care, either because they don’t know where to go, or it’s too expensive,” says Alcazar. “But work is the biggest public health issue for these guys. If they can’t work, they can’t stay healthy.”

For Raúl, things are tough, but at least he’s on his own, with no wife or child to worry about. Tomás Perez, on the other hand, is more than merely broke: he’s heartbroken. Perez will never see his son Rene again. The ten-year-old is dying, and Perez (his middle name) can’t afford to return to his home near Acapulco to be with him. It cost the father $1,900 to get into the United States in the first place, and he has a wife and eight other children to support, three boys and five girls. With things as they are, he hasn’t a penny to send them. “All I can pay is my rent,” laments the skinny 35-year-old with sad brown eyes.

Perez is hanging around the foyer of the day-labor center to keep warm on a drizzly weekday morning. It’s probably coincidence, but he’s dressed entirely in dark clothing, including a black baseball cap, as he relates his family’s woeful tale. “There was a ball that formed,” says the laborer. “We thought it was his appendix, but it wasn’t. The doctors operated and said it was cancer. It’s difficult to treat. They can’t do anything, and he’s not eating or drinking. I’d be better to be down there, but this year has been the worst. How am I going to do it without any money?”

Entering the United States illegally is a risk laborers such as Perez take out of economic desperation, and in recent years it has paid off. The Northern California economy was booming, day jobs were plentiful, and many led to longer-term employment. Despite rising rents, laborers were living decently and keeping their estranged families in the money. José, a thirty-year-old from Veracruz, Mexico, says he was working almost every day through last spring. By living frugally and splitting the $1,800 rent on an East Oakland flat with nine compadres, he was able to send $1,600 a month home to his wife and two sons. That’s big money for a working-class Mexican family. In Veracruz, José might pull in eighty or ninety pesos a day, tops. That’s less than ten bucks, and we’re not talking nine to five either. Try sunrise to sunset.

Remittance to families has become a key source of income for many poor countries. Mexican academic Rafael Alarcón noted in a recent article, for instance, that money sent home by Mexicans working abroad in 1995 — more than $3.1 billion came from the US alone — rivaled the country’s take from agricultural exports, and was equivalent to 63 percent of Mexico’s revenues from tourism. Prior to the terrorist attacks, Mexico was on track to receive more than $9 billion in remittance last year, according to Mexican government sources cited by the Los Angeles Times.

But for the individual, as Tomás Perez discovered, this fabulous pay raise comes with a catch: Like Perez, José hasn’t seen his family since he finally crossed the border after a month of failed attempts two years ago. In fact, not one of the dozen or so fathers interviewed had seen his kids since he first arrived here. Perez’s cousin Tomás Cortez, another 35-year-old from Acapulco, saved up for a year and a half to smuggle his wife into the United States three months ago, leaving his three children to live with his mother in Mexico. Cortez says they are well cared for, but it still hurts. “It has been painful for the family to be apart,” he says. “I worry that they are growing up without a father.”

Cortez had to pay $2,000 to traverse the border — and that’s the other big tradeoff. Due to an increasingly controlled frontier, the “coyotes” — or guides who lead illegal migrants through the rugged southwest terrain — can charge between $1,800 and $2,000 for people coming from Mexico. The tariff is much greater from Central or South America, usually $5,000 to $15,000. In many cases, perhaps most, these men are betting their family’s life savings on the land of opportunity.

When things are good, a laborer can earn that coyote money back before too long, but things are no longer good in the Bay Area, even for the skilled, the educated, and the native-born. For the undocumented, the situation has become downright desperate.

‘Everyone Got Hit’

Carlos, a 49-year-old from Lima, Peru, is waiting in front of the Oakland day labor center on East 12th Street. He also hasn’t seen his wife and three kids since he came to the United States four years ago. Carlos sums up his work situation with a thumbs down and a Bronx cheer. “I was getting work three to four days a week before September 11,” he says. “Now I get one, or none.”

Every man interviewed cites similar numbers. Raúl worked three days a week before the attacks. Now, he says, he’s only gotten one day in the past two weeks. He’s one-upped by Roberto, a 23-year-old from Mexico City who has only worked one day in the past month. Santos Carbajal can top that. A skinny, soft-spoken Honduran who was recently granted political asylum and is hoping to someday bring his wife to the States, Carbajal says he’s been waiting on this stretch for 31 days straight without a single day’s work. “I was working for a demolition company until November and then they laid me off. I’ve made no money since then,” he says in Spanish. “I used to send money home, but since September 11, I’ve been keeping it and trying to save. And I’m running out.”

A few men gripe about a recent Oakland ordinance that lets police ticket contractors who pick up laborers from the street. Employers are instead expected to stop at the day labor center, where workers sign up each morning. City Council president Ignacio De La Fuente crafted the ordinance last July to appease local merchants and Fruitvale residents who were unhappy to have scores of men, including occasional troublemakers, hanging around their street corners.

Though it rarely has been enforced, some workers complain that the ordinance has scared contractors away. Yet it’s hard to imagine this law is ultimately to blame for the work shortages. Berkeley has no such ordinance, and laborers there report a similarly large crimp in their livelihoods.

Pat Constantine, who runs the day labor center, blames the decline on the terrorist attacks, noting that jobs through the center have since dropped off seventy percent. “It’s affected the laborers because everyone got hit,” she says. “People are holding off spending money to fix their homes, or they have family members that got laid off do the work.”

The ordinance was also meant to protect workers from exploitative contractors. As the workers wait on East 12th Street, one employer, a bulky Latino with a pockmarked face, pulls around the corner in a white pickup and calls out to Raúl’s crowd, but none of the men will go with him. He’s one of the bad apples, a painting contractor who hired one of them on a prior occasion and abandoned the man at the job site at day’s end without paying a cent.

Other times, when a man gets hurt on the job, the employer will drop him off on a corner somewhere without any kind of assistance. These things happen all the time, the workers say. And to whom are they supposed to complain, the Border Patrol? The day labor center does report contractors who refuse to pay up to the labor board. But its two staffers can only do so much. The scofflaws always can pick up men at some other location.

Double Whammy

Figures from the Construction Industry Research Board show that Bay Area counties have taken a disproportionate hit in residential housing, where the majority of day laborers are employed. Over the past year, the number of new housing units fell 44 percent in Alameda County and 11 percent in Contra Costa County, while the statewide numbers barely changed. For the same period, total residential construction, including alterations and additions, fell 24 percent in Alameda County and 6 percent in Contra Costa, even as it rose 2 percent statewide.

These construction stats reflect local workforce trends. While many parts of California have higher unemployment rates than the East Bay, only in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have residents experienced a more rapid loss of jobs. Unemployment in Alameda County has more than doubled since January 2000 and has nearly doubled in Contra Costa, according to state figures. Translated into human lives, this means 36,700 more East Bay residents were scouring the scant job pickings on Craig’s List in January than they were 24 months earlier.

The laborers’ world is competitive, even in the best of times. Anyone who hangs around their turf awhile can witness the dog-eat-dogness of it all. José, the Veracruz laborer, was standing on a West Berkeley street corner near Truitt & White, fixated on the comings and goings of automobiles. On that morning, at least a hundred men were scattered around the neighborhood, and only perhaps a handful had been picked up. A mestizo with a slight build and tidy moustache, José looked like a Los Angeles hipster at a happening party, glancing around so fervently that it was difficult to engage him in conversation. His behavior was completely understandable: whoever gets to that vehicle first gets the cash, and when a contractor pulls up, workers will descend on his truck like hungry wolves.

This dance of desperation has existed almost as long as there have been major economic disparities between the United States and Latin America. Yet the post-terror world holds a double whammy for these workers. Besides less work and more competition, there is an increased suspicion of foreigners and a call for heightened border vigilance. In the private sector, many companies are asking employees to produce citizenship documents, and showing the door to those who can’t. At least one day laborer interviewed lost a steady job this way.

Some homeowners simply have stopped hiring off the street. “On Saturdays, a lot of women would come to get help on jobs, but that’s dropped a lot,” says Constantine. “One woman told me she read in the paper that a Guatemalan helped Mohammed Atta get his driver’s license.” In fact, a pair of Hispanic immigrants recently received short prison terms for helping two of the hijackers, though not Atta, obtain fake IDs. The authorities identified one of the men, Herbert Villalobos, as a day laborer.

On the federal level, President Bush has proposed an additional $1.2 billion for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a 29 percent budget increase over the past fiscal year, partly to double the number of Border Patrol agents and inspectors.

The president’s proposal would bolster ongoing border-tightening efforts that have already doubled the agency’s manpower in some sectors, outfitted the agents with state-of-the-art equipment, and erected new fences and lighting. But these initiatives, which aim to keep unauthorized people out of the United States, are in many cases keeping them in. The misery now felt by many of Oakland’s jobless laborers can be traced in part to changes that have been taking place 462 miles south, within the San Diego lair of the US Border Patrol.

La Migra

Along the southernmost fringe of the Southern California town of Chula Vista, a dirt road runs east-west through a no man’s land that’s just barely part of the United States. If you’re facing east, a menacing barrier of gleaming steel mesh known as the secondary border fence stands a few yards to the left. It rises eight feet, then turns 45 degrees toward Mexico and juts out an additional six feet. There’s nothing to grab onto; someone trying to cross the border would need a good-sized ladder and would have to be fast. That’s partly because Border Patrol agents are now stationed prominently every few hundred yards in their vehicles — white SUVs with a green stripe. It’s also because there are two fences to traverse.

The primary border fence, perhaps 150 feet to the south across an unkempt grassy strip, is made of heavy corrugated steel panels that acted as portable runways during the Vietnam war. The primary fence looks as shabby and easily breached as the secondary one looks spiffy and impenetrable. Numbers spray-painted on each panel of the corroded barricade increase as you move east from the San Ysidro port of entry toward the Border Patrol’s Brown Field Station. Some of the panels contain worn, painted logos indicating landmarks on the Mexican side — handy reference points for an agent in pursuit.

It’s almost as if an artist designed the fences to represent the worlds they separate. On the US side, topping low, scrubby hills not far north of the shiny secondary fence, are upscale housing developments — Rolling Hills Ranch, Charter Point, East Lake, Rancho Del Rey, Otay Ranch — whose colorful banners beckon optimistically in the breeze. To the south of the litter-strewn primary gauntlet are the slums of Tijuana and abject poverty.

Along the dirt road rumbles a dusty government-issue van which, judging from its interior, appears to have been used for a recent graveyard shift: A small table in the back seat is stained with coffee, and a Norelco electric razor sits upside down in one of the dashboard cupholders.

In the driver’s seat, clean-shaven and clad in the dark-green uniform of the Border Patrol, sits Jim Jacques, a spokesman for the agency’s San Diego sector. Jacques, 41, who pronounces his name the Spanish way, “Hockiss,” bears a striking resemblance to a young Al Gore. It’s an apt likeness, since he’s briefing his visitor on Operation Gatekeeper, the aggressive border-tightening initiative launched by Gore’s former boss, President Clinton, in October of 1994.

Prior to Gatekeeper, the Southwestern border with Mexico was like Swiss cheese, and migrants took full advantage of the holes. Where a fence did exist, says Jacques, it was in disrepair. Border lighting was poor, the technology primitive, and the agents hopelessly outnumbered. Nowhere was this more acute than in the 7,000-square-mile San Diego sector, where illegal traffic, as measured by arrest rates, was off the chart. Of the 1,031,668 arrests by the Border Patrol nationwide in 1993, nearly 44 percent were in this sector, which covers just 66 linear miles of border from the Pacific Ocean at Imperial Beach to the west to Campo Valley to the east. That’s a tiny fraction of the overall Southwestern border, which meanders some two thousand miles before running into the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas.

During the early ’90s, migrants flowed across the San Diego border nightly by the thousands, and the agents were powerless to stop them. “We were in a completely reactive mode,” says Jacques. “We would have to stand back a certain distance to even be safe. You were outnumbered a hundred to one, and there were quite a few people who would incite violence against us, so if you tried to go in there and push people back to Mexico, there in that little no man’s land, they could act with autonomy. They could rock our people and in some cases they’d shoot at us and then step back across the line and run away.”

The biggest danger to the Patrol, says Jacques, and the main reason for building the primary fence, was the border drive-throughs. “We’re talking about a fifteen-year-old van filled to double or triple its weight capacity,” says the agent. “I’ve seen a full-sized van with thirty-one people in it, just stacked like cordwood, and only one seat in the entire vehicle: the driver’s seat. The driver realized he was going to get caught, turned back southbound, and slammed into a fence. He was the only person able to get up after the accident.”

The Patrol was probably catching only ten to thirty percent of people sneaking across at that time, estimates Merv Mason, another Border Patrol spokesman. It’s hard to say exactly, since the agents could only speculate how many were getting away. Still, that would be pretty attractive odds for someone trying to escape poverty or political repression, such as Santos Carbajal or, for that matter, any of the immigrants awaiting work on East Bay streets.

Ten percent, according to the agency’s official history, was about the success rate of the Patrol’s earliest incarnation: mounted guards assigned to the southwestern border to prevent unlawful entry of European immigrants who were denied entry at Ellis Island, and Chinese barred from the country by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Until 1917, citizens of Canada and Mexico were allowed to pass freely into the United States. That year, Congress voted to impose a literacy requirement and an $8 per person tax on these immigrants, but not until 1921 did the government move to limit their numbers. People who were denied entry began sneaking across, and Congress created the Border Patrol in 1924 to stem the illegal traffic. In those days, agents were recruited from the ranks of railway postal clerks and immigrant inspectors. Today, agents attend a nineteen-week academy, where they learn law enforcement basics including tracking, evidence handling, use of firearms, and, most crucial along the border, how to question someone in Spanish.

In the fluorescent-and-concrete gloom of the Brown Field Station processing center, two agents are doing precisely that. The agent asking most of the questions is Latino. He’s wearing blue rubber gloves, which match the facility’s doors and trim, the lower half of its cinder-block walls, and the blue Formica booking console that curves through the middle of the room. From behind this raised computer console, you can see into large holding cells filled with rows and rows of concrete benches. There are also family-sized cells with toilets and individual detention rooms for those with unwholesome histories, men like Luis, the one being questioned. Sweaty and unshaven, the young man is dressed in blue Chuck Taylors, filthy jeans, and a Packers vs. Chargers Super Bowl T-shirt. He’s got half a dozen tattoos, including a cross on one hand and a bleeding Jesus on his shoulder.

Luis answers the questions quietly. He was nabbed three miles east of the Otay port of entry and the Patrol’s database immediately recognized his fingerprints. He’d been deported three times already. He also scored hits on the Patrol’s FBI database: six months in prison for burglary and a couple of busts for heroin use. But since he’s served less than a year in prison, he’ll just be booted out again, and will undoubtedly be back before long.

All told, there’s room to detain 450 people in this facility, but the holding areas are no longer filled to capacity, as they were prior to Gatekeeper. In the early ’90s the San Diego sector had about a thousand agents to handle nearly half the nation’s illegal migration.

They were unsuccessful, of course, and the lax border situation rose to the top of the state’s public agenda. Governor Pete Wilson, who was mulling a GOP presidential run, made a show of suing the federal government over the rising costs of immigrant services. He coat-tailed his 1994 reelection campaign on Prop. 187, a popular but controversial ballot measure that aimed to bar illegal immigrants and their children from state social services, schools, and health care; it would have required teachers and service providers to check people’s immigration status and snitch on the violators. Wilson’s most memorable TV spot, which brought charges of scapegoating from his critics, contained grainy nighttime footage of immigrants running north across the border with a voiceover saying: “They just keep coming.” The governor sailed to reelection and Prop. 187 won handily, though the courts later gutted its major provisions as unconstitutional.

But the border fiasco was an embarrassment to the Clinton administration, and with a presidential election year approaching, Clinton took action. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner devised a plan to herd the traffic away from the cities and into remote areas where immigrants couldn’t simply vanish into urban crowds. Gatekeeper provided money to erect new fences and lighting and to more than double the number of Border Patrol agents and equip them with new aircraft and SUVs, ground sensors, infrared scopes, remote cameras, night-vision goggles, and the new booking database, which is called IDENT.

The Crossing

You won’t find Roberto in the IDENT system. Twice he tried to sneak across the border and twice he made it, each time without a guide. That’s something very few people even attempt anymore. Far too many have died, and it’s risky enough with a coyote. But Roberto is young and adventurous; he’s got cojones. Now, three years later, he sits huddled in a blue parka, his straight dark hair hanging to his shoulders, waiting for work on the same wall as Raúl.

Roberto first traveled from Mexico City to look for work in northern Mexico, and there he and some friends began talking about making the trip to Los Angeles. One knew the way. “We limited it to three, because in a larger group, La Migra would think we have a coyote,” Roberto says.

That’s bad. If the US Border Patrol catches a Mexican citizen trying to sneak north, and the person doesn’t have a rap sheet like Luis, he or she can sign a voluntary agreement and return to Mexico without a formal hearing. The other option is a hearing before an immigration judge, but if you’re deported it’s technically a felony the next time you’re caught. Not surprisingly, most Mexicans choose the voluntary return, which isn’t available to citizens of other countries. Immigrant smuggling, however, is a completely different ball game — a real felony. If La Migra suspects you’re a coyote, the agents are going to check your background more thoroughly and try to convince the people you’re with to testify against you.

In reality, though, coyotes are seldom prosecuted, and that’s usually only after they put their clients in serious jeopardy. Most people refuse to testify against their coyotes, Jacques says, either because they’re afraid of retribution or the coyote has guaranteed a successful passage, and the client may have another try coming.

Roberto’s first crossing was near Tijuana, a dangerous place for an attempt, he says, because there are still plenty of border bandits who prey on migrants traveling north with their bank accounts in their pockets. Besides the specter of robbers, it was dark, the desert terrain was rough, and Roberto was scared. “After I crossed the line I had to walk all night to walk around the mountain to avoid La Migra,” he recalls. “I found some railroad tracks and jumped on the first train — it took half a day to wait for the train — and as soon as I saw the train stop, I got off.” Roberto found himself in Fontana, California, near Los Angeles, his destination. “I was very lucky,” he says. He’s not kidding. Railroad security guards are always on the lookout for freight-jumpers, and five Mexican men were recently killed after stowing away in a coal car. According to the Associated Press, the men died on January 30 as the hundred-ton load was dumped onto a conveyor belt at an Arizona power plant. Since 1993, the Border Patrol has confirmed more than three hundred deaths of illegal migrants in the San Diego sector, where Roberto came across, and other migrants have undoubtedly died whose bodies were never discovered.

The Oakland day laborers have heard all the stories of countrymen dying of thirst and heat exhaustion, or being abandoned by coyotes to perish from exposure or freeze to death in snowy mountain passes. “It was an ugly experience,” remembers Tomás Cortez, who hired a coyote to guide him. “I thought I was going to die.”


Critics of the Border Patrol, including Global Exchange and Amnesty International, have attacked Gatekeeper on the grounds that immigrants will come here anyway, and the Patrol is merely driving desperate people to risk their lives crossing through the Otay Mountains, high desert, and other dangerous areas where no border fences exist. Many of the migrants are unprepared for the harsh journey, where temperatures often vary forty degrees from day to night and access to water is rare. To these groups, it’s a human rights issue. But from the Border Patrol perspective, danger is precisely the point. Make the crossing more perilous, they figure, and the agents will have the upper hand, and perhaps fewer people will try. As one agent puts it: “I don’t tell anybody to walk forty miles in the desert.” In 1998, however, the sector established an airborne search and rescue unit that claims nearly 900 migrant rescues since its inception.

The Border Patrol views Operation Gatekeeper as a resounding success, and has launched similar operations in other Southwestern sectors. For one, officials cite a drop in border violence. Indeed, the San Diego County district attorney’s office reports that violent crime in the San Diego region plummeted 47 percent between 1994 and 2000, compared to 38 percent statewide and 26 percent nationally. The county’s overall crime rate was down 44 percent, compared to a 20 percent drop nationally. “Before Gatekeeper, we had a lot of deaths that weren’t being attributed to any one thing,” says Jacques. “Mostly it was just the violence of an uncontrolled area. After we took control of these areas, the bandit teams out there basically dissolved. Now we’re dealing with the smugglers. That’s our primary source of violence and deaths.”

Arrests of border sneaks in the San Diego sector declined even more dramatically. In 1993, agents busted more than half a million people; last year they apprehended 110,074, just nine percent of the Patrol’s nationwide total. These days, Agent Mason estimates, more than ninety percent of attempts are being thwarted.

Gatekeeper and similar operations have indeed moved illegal traffic away from the urban areas as their architects had hoped. Yet they have not, by any measure, stopped people from sneaking into the United States. On the contrary, the Patrol’s national arrest figures grew from just over a million in 1994 to nearly 1.7 million in 2000. Arrests did decrease last year; however, September 11 and a faltering US economy may have played a substantial role.

Indeed, the biggest factors in the ebb and flow of illegal immigration appear to be economic. The booming economy and labor shortages of the late 1990s were a magnet for undocumented workers, whose numbers more than doubled over the past decade to 8.7 million in 2000, according to preliminary Census estimates. The bureau also reports that 44 percent, or nearly 3.9 million of these immigrants, came from Mexico. If past trends are any indication, the lion’s share would have ended up here in California. A 1994 Census study concluded that California had more undocumented workers than any other state, exceeding the total of the next three runners-up: New York, Texas, and Florida.

‘A Crucial Safety Valve’

While it’s clear that the border-tightening initiatives are effective local deterrents, trying to prevent people from seeking a better life may prove all but impossible. Just as water finds the holes in a leaky bucket, people will find a way around whatever barriers you put in front of them. The Patrol knows what it’s up against. “About 44 percent of our agents are of Latin descent,” says Jacques, “so there’s a lot of understanding there. Most of these people are just trying to better their own lives, but the reality is, our job is to close the back door and make people come through the proper procedures to come into this country. The aliens know our job is to stop them, and their challenge is to get by us.”

Asked whether the agents view this situation as a game, Jacques shoots his visitor a glance. “I’ve heard it referred to as catch-and-release fishing,” he replies.

Coyotes, on the other hand, are judged harshly. “The smugglers look at people as commodities,” says Jacques. “It’s like, ‘Hey, if I lose my group and get away, oh well, I lost my profit margin.’ They’re trading in human lives.”

Though perhaps true, his words ring with irony: Before Gatekeeper, many people made the trip without coyotes, and if you wanted a guide, you’d pay perhaps $200 to $300. By driving people further into dangerous and unfamiliar terrain, the Patrol’s prowess at “catch-and-release” has not only made the coyotes indispensable, it has allowed them to jack up their rates. Immigrant smuggling has, by many accounts, come to rival drug trafficking as a revenue generator, and this escalation of the business has a tragic side effect: Tomás Perez can’t go home to see his dying son because he doesn’t have the $2,000 it now costs to pay his way back to the United States.

There’s yet another group trading in human lives: the immigrants themselves. They stand on the streets of a foreign country like prostitutes, selling their time, their muscles, their health, and their ability to be with their families and see their kids grow up.

For longtime citizens, it is easy to forget that this is the way it has always been. From Chinese nationals imported to build the railroads in the 1800s to the European diaspora who labored long hours in the cramped sweatshops and factories in New York City at the turn of the last century, the United States has been, and still is, built on immigrant labor.

Business has always benefited from their hard work, particularly so in California where Pete Wilson, as a state senator during the ’80s, arranged for thousands of Mexican agricultural workers to bypass immigration laws because the farmers demanded it. No other state economy relies more heavily on undocumented workers, particularly in the construction, farming, and service industries. “They are a crucial safety valve” that gives builders flexibility, providing overflow labor during volatile times, says John Frith, a spokesman for the California Building Industry Association.

While California may spend a great deal on services for immigrants, these payments could easily be viewed as a business subsidy. Nor are illegal immigrants always the drain on resources that politicians purport. Alameda County, for instance, was nineteen percent Hispanic in 2000, but in the county’s most recent social services report, only five percent of its General Assistance caseload was Hispanic, and only one percent of the cases were conducted in Spanish, as would be expected for recent Latino immigrants.

“I don’t think people are coming here to get benefits,” says Belinda Reyes, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who studies Mexican immigrants. “There’s a lot of fear when you’re unauthorized. People fear being in public or going to see doctors. Even among the legal population, with the welfare debates and Prop. 187, there’s a feeling that, ‘If I get services, they may not give me citizenship.’ ” Though at least some Mexican nationals cross the border to exploit US social services, studies have repeatedly characterized the Latino community as one with a strong work ethic and tight-knit families.

The Waiting Game

That much is clear from time spent hanging out on East Bay streets. “My kids are always asking, ‘When are you going to come home?’ ” says Miguel Gralles, a 45-year-old laborer from Chiapas. “If I go back down, they’re poor again and there’s nothing I can give them. We know it’s going to get better here because it’s the United States. In Chiapas there is no change. Here, there will be change.”

That change, they hope, will accompany the end of the rainy season. If not then, perhaps the next month or the one after that, or maybe by summer, or fall. A recent possibility for permanent change was scuttled by terrorism: In early September, Mexican president Vicente Fox came to Washington pushing for amnesty for undocumented Mexican workers. President Bush balked on the highly controversial amnesty proposal, but voiced support for a compromise that, Congress willing, might allow the immigrants to stay and work in the US while they applied for green cards. There was also talk of welcoming Mexican workers into the country for seasonal employment. But Mr. bin Laden halted all progress on that front, and the resulting call for tighter borders could make things tougher still for immigrant laborers and their families.

On Friday, President Bush is scheduled to meet with Fox in Mexico to discuss some of the same issues. Yet US domestic politics have changed considerably since their last meeting, and Congress may now be less open to Fox’s proposals. At the moment, the land of milk and honey can only guarantee the immigrants uncertainty and sacrifice yet to come. There will be more sleeping on floors, more broken promises to faraway children, and more hunger in the gut from skipping breakfast and lunch.

And there will be more waiting. Every morning, seven days a week, rain or shine, the men will drag themselves out of sleep and onto the street corners where they will stand and wait. They will wait until there’s nothing left to wait for, and then they’ll wait a little longer, just to be sure.

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