The canvas is torn and ragged, exposing the raw, blistered skin within. The thin soles are filled with holes, and laces are only a memory. But still, Perenza--a wiry, longhaired teen with a tooth-gapped grin--managed to hike the 300 miles from the Mexican city just south of El Paso, Texas, to the Arizona border.
Leaning against the rickety fence that separates Nogales, Sonora, from Nogales, Arizona, Perenza explains why every step was worth it. It wasn't because, like many Mexicans, he nurtures lofty goals of the American dream. Nor is he fleeing repressive political stagnation.
"I want to live in America so bad," he says, smiling wickedly, "because you have the most beautiful women in the world. I want to party!"
Perenza's hormones drove him to steal into this country through El Paso, where he repeatedly slipped across the border--six, seven times," he says--only to be caught with dispatch by the U.S. Border Patrol and returned to Mexico.
Experience really is the best teacher. "After a few times, I start to think, Texas no good," Perenza says. "Too many of your federales."
Then he heard about the promised land--Nogales.
"Friends tell me, to cross at Nogales is easy," he says. "Everybody knows now. Arizona is the best."
According to a Border Patrol estimate, this year a record half-million Mexicans--many of them with much more sinister motives--will follow Perenza on his Arizona journey. The word is out: If you want to enter the United States illegally, the Arizona border, especially around Nogales, is the place to be.
A long history of immigration woes, combined with last year's protracted debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, have made most Arizonans weary of tales about border problems. So weary, in fact, that most haven't yet awakened to the realization that the border is out of control.
During the past six months, the situation has become increasingly chaotic; the Arizona border has deteriorated into merely a legal distinction, as thousands of immigrants pass unhindered through gaping holes in the fence while Border Patrol agents stand by helplessly. Day and night, the flow of humanity never abates.
Along with this unprecedented number of illegals has come an equally unprecedented explosion of crime, violence and tumult.
The situation is so dangerous for the handful of Border Patrol officers deployed in Nogales that they were recently forced to abandon their posts and retreat a block from the border fence--in effect ceding the international frontier to the hordes of illegal aliens who are swarming across it with impunity. In the history of American immigration control, it is an unprecedented retreat.
The cause of this wave of immigration into Arizona is no secret. During 1993, massive, well-financed federal efforts to repel the legions of illegal immigrants in other border states were successful. But the good fortune of California and Texas has proved to be Arizona's calamity. The deterrent efforts have reconfigured migration patterns, channeling ever-increasing numbers of immigrants like Perenza in the direction of Nogales, Douglas and Yuma.
Undermanned and outgunned--and with the worst ratio of officers to miles of any state with a Mexican border--the Arizona contingent of the Border Patrol is powerless to stop the immigration blitzkrieg.
In press accounts of this phenomenon, the sudden wave of Mexican aliens crashing into Arizona has been depicted as a sort of unhappy accident, the unavoidable result of the war on illegal immigration.
But it is no accident. It is, Washington, D.C.-based Border Patrol officials admit, part of a deliberate plan. They confirm that current federal strategies call for Arizona to take the brunt of the immigration wave--until some unspecified point in the future, when equally unspecified steps will be taken to stem the tide.
"We have long recognized that Arizona would be the victim of border-control methods in adjacent states," says Duke Austin, the Border Patrol's Washington, D.C., spokesman.
But recent events indicate that Arizona will be forced to continue carrying the immigration burden for our neighbor states to the east and west, whose political clout enables them to capture a larger slice of funding and resources for border defense.
Critics charge that high-ranking federal officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno, are using politics to decide which areas of the border will be protected, and which will be overrun. This is happening at a time when Arizona is losing clout on immigration issues, with the upcoming retirement of veteran Senator Dennis DeConcini.
Evidence of how partisan power politics, not need, is driving U.S. border policy can be found in the allocation of new Border Patrol officers. Of 1,000 new agents who are being hired this year to stem the tide of illegal aliens, only 33--mostly secretaries and support personnel--are bound for the troubled Arizona line.
The southernmost regions of Arizona have become America's forgotten border.
Forgotten, that is, unless you--as an Arizona resident and taxpayer--must pay the price of border neglect.
@body:Immigration is a game of numbers, and the numbers are astounding. In past years, the Border Patrol office in Nogales would consider itself overworked if it apprehended 2,500 illegal aliens a month. In February, however, officers gathered up more than 10,000 illegals.
"It's just incredible," says border agent and spokesman Steve McDonald, noting that the "Tucson sector" of the border--which includes the entirety of the Arizona line except for the Yuma area--is on a pace that would net 125,000 or more illegal aliens in 1994, up by about 30,000 from the previous year.
At first glance, one would think that the high number of captures shows that the Border Patrol is doing an extraordinary job. In truth, the patrol's only catching more aliens because there are so many more there to be caught.
"What you've got to remember," says McDonald, "is that these days we probably only apprehend one in five. Optimistic estimates are that we catch one in three. Do the math yourself to figure out what that means."
It means that if illegals continue their northern march at their current rate, 500,000 may enter Arizona this year--with most evading capture. While many are just passing through--or return home voluntarily--that's a throng equal to one-eighth of Arizona's permanent residents.
Many are earnest, hardworking Mexican families who come to Arizona for jobs and end up being exploited unmercifully by employers. Others come to do the exploiting, dropping comfortably into the American social safety net.
The extreme human and societal costs of this wave are clearly apparent in towns like Nogales. But the pernicious effects of this invasion are hardly confined to the small border burgs. The Arizona Governor's Office has estimated that the cost for dealing with illegal aliens statewide--providing everything from health care to jail space--totals $100 million a year.
The money flows out from a hundred different state and county agencies--those providing welfare, food stamps, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, schools. The largest expense is laid at the door of the state prison system, whose spokesmen say incarcerating almost 1,600 Mexican citizens costs more than $20 million a year.
Health care is another major expense. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System reports that there are 2,792 illegals on state rolls, costing $4.7 million per year. And it is those who aren't part of the state's health plan who are most likely running up even bigger health-care debts--by flooding county emergency rooms.
Immigration, while being a federal responsibility, is a state problem. When the feds fail to control the flow of immigrants over the border, it is the state that pays the price.
But the federal government, at least by its own definition, isn't failing. In fact, it claims a stunning success.
@body:According to the Border Patrol, illegal immigrants are coming to Arizona in droves because of something called the "Balloon Effect," and it works like this: When the patrol puts pressure on one area of the southern frontier, effectively blocking alien traffic into the United States, the traffic pops up elsewhere; just like the bulges that appear in a balloon when it is squeezed.
The squeezing, at the moment, is going on in the far west at San Diego, where a 14-mile-long steel wall running from the Pacific Ocean inland has made it dramatically more difficult to scamper over the border from Tijuana. In the eastern-border sectors, pressure is also being applied at El Paso, where Operation Hold the Line--a program that places hundreds of well-armed officers directly on the border 24 hours a day--has, by some estimates, reduced illegal immigration from Jurez by half.
San Diego and El Paso were not assigned the thousands of border agents and millions of dollars necessary to build a wall and Hold the Line at random. According to Duke Austin, the Border Patrol's Washington-based spokesman, the programs, conceived in the late 1980s, were put in place because the two locations were the sites of the largest immigrant flows.
Illegals were attracted to the areas because of the "Melting Factor," Austin explains.
"It is easy for illegals to just melt away and disappear when they cross over into major metropolitan areas like El Paso and San Diego," he says.
So the Border Patrol came up with a plan.
"The thinking was that if we could drive them away from populated areas, out into the desert and small towns along the border, they would be easier to isolate and catch. It is much easier to deal with a sustained, verifiable flow of illegals through a rural area than a city.
"We knew when we pushed them away from the cities, in a few years the word would get around that it was too difficult to cross there, and they would head toward Arizona."
So, in Border Patrol lexicon, while the Hold-the-Line-induced Balloon Effect is easing the Melting Factor, Arizona gets stuck with its very own Battle of the Bulge.
According to Austin, however, this is supposed to be a temporary state of affairs. The Border Patrol's action plan called for the speedy reallocation of manpower to places like Nogales, as soon as the area started experiencing a markedly heavier flow of illegals.
"We knew it would be rough on the Arizona border for a while," he says, "but as we conceived it, help would soon arrive. You all will just have to hang in there for a bit until it does."
Somewhere between the crafting of this border-control policy and its final implementation, however, an ugly reality--politics--intervened. The cavalry isn't coming to the rescue as the Border Patrol initially planned.
As a result, citizens of Nogales, and the Border Patrol agents assigned to protect them, are left doing what Austin recommends--hanging on.
@body:Nathan Gonzalez works in a small grocery on a side street in Nogales, just a block or two north of the border. As he sweeps the dust from the sidewalk in front of the store, he points with his broom to the spot on the chipped concrete where, one night about two months ago, he lay dying.
"They came up from behind me, real quiet," he remembers. "And then, bam! They whacked me over the head with a bat or something.
"Cracked my skull," Gonzalez notes ruefully, rubbing his scalp. "I bled and bled. And if my wife hadn't come looking for me, I would have bled to death."
The attackers cleaned out the store's cash register and took Gonzalez's wallet--which was recovered the next day, sans $50, lying in a street on the other side of the border.
"My story ain't nothing special," he says, shaking his head. "Shit happens to everybody."
Especially in Nogales. It seems as though nearly every resident has a story to tell about violent crime--which is up by 40 percent over last year. Burglaries are up 21 percent, theft 19 percent.
The Nogales International, the twice-weekly newspaper serving the American city of 20,000, runs a police log featuring a big black box listing such percentages, in order to keep the crime issue in the forefront of civic debate. But one figure no one needs to be reminded of is that, according to city police, 90 percent of the crime is committed by illegal aliens.
You don't have to look farther than over the border fence to figure out why.
The Mexican side of Nogales, with a population hovering somewhere around 350,000, is a study in chaos, an abstract painting of a city composed of tattered fences, mounds of trash and streams of murky-looking drainage flowing through the streets. A city of corrugated metal shacks, lean-tos and colorful laundry flapping in the dusty breeze--that frequently blows up and down the town's many hills and into the shattered rock gullies, which transverse the city north to south.
This desolate urban border is a fault line where two economic worlds grind against one another. Forget about the bustling trade in sombreros, panchos and plastic-encased scorpions that sidewalk merchants hawk on the few tourist-laden streets adjacent to the border. NAFTA is just an odd acronym here, an esoteric geopolitical mystery that doesn't put tortillas on the table.
But right across the fence is a land of relative affluence, accessible with ease through one of hundreds of holes, some a few feet wide, others big enough for the locals to drive trucks through--which they frequently do.
Legions of two-bit border thieves and hustlers have taken notice, and cross into Nogales, Arizona, daily to prey upon merchants and tourists. Drug smugglers are making use of the Nogales corridor to pump millions of dollars of contraband through the community.
Police and border officers working along the Arizona border say organized raiding parties often swoop over the fence and into American homes--beating the occupants and making off with TVs, radios and jewelry before disappearing. Near the border town of Naco last summer, a half-dozen such raids--some in broad daylight--prompted some residents to barricade themselves inside their homes for weeks on end in survivalist fashion, surrounded by barbed wire, bottled water and stockpiles of weapons.
Jack Tongisa, a gray-haired retiree who describes himself as a "native Nogales boy," lives only a few yards north of the Nogales border fence and says that he sleeps with a shotgun next to the bed--to protect what is left of his belongings.
"I'll have to use it eventually," he says, squinting in the late-afternoon sun as a half-dozen illegals dart through a hole in the fence a stone's throw from his property line. "The house has been broken in four times this year, but I've always been away. The odds are, next time I'll be home.
"And if I am, there is going to be some dead Mexicans laying out in the yard."
As if to punctuate his point, a distant gunshot rings out somewhere down the fence line. Gunfire, locals say, can often be heard after dark on both sides of the border.
Maria Nochez, who lives with her two young boys a block away from the fence, makes her children sleep on floor mats--after a presumably random gunshot shattered their bedroom window one morning just before dawn.
"More drugs got run across my front yard last month than got sold in all of New York City last year," Nochez says, "and those guys carry big guns. My kids play inside."
But as bad as conditions may be for residents on both sides of the border, it is far worse for agents of the U.S. Border Patrol. They are hunkering down for war--and for them, the military analogies come easy.
On a recent morning at the main Border Patrol station in Nogales, Joseph Harris, the station commander and an 18-year veteran of the patrol, sighs that the Arizona border is "like Vietnam."
"The only difference is that we know where the enemy is, which is to say that he is everywhere. They are sweeping over us," Harris says. "My people are getting their butts kicked."
The only way to maintain discipline and morale under such warlike conditions, Harris says, is to enforce a strict code of military conduct. Officers can be given written reprimands for being five minutes late to work, for having their uniform in less-than-perfect shape, and for a variety of other minor offenses.
"It may seem like little things, but we have to be able to rely on each other down to the minute," he says.
"All we have is each other, and we have to stay together, looking and acting like a team."
The team has tough opponents. On this morning, agents are busy carrying boxes of heavy new Kevlar riot shields into the patrol's bunkerlike office a few miles north of the border. They're needed, Harris explains, to protect officers from rocks that cascade daily over the border fence, thrown by young wanna-be illegals.
"They do it to drive us away from the holes in the fence line, they do it to show their contempt, they do it for fun," says Steve McDonald. "They do it, most of all, to hurt us."
Patrol agents, McDonald says, have developed a strategy for avoiding the rain of rocks. "Your instinct is to run away, but the best strategy is to run toward the rock thrower, toward the fence," he explains. "It's more difficult for them to arc it over and hit you if you're clinging to the wall."
While the sight of macho federal lawmen scampering for cover from rocks tossed by pubescent Mexican kids may seem ludicrous, it isn't really a laughing matter. The damage the flying hunks of asphalt and granite can do is evident on the dented fleet of green and white Suburbans agents use to patrol the border.
"The trucks are targets," McDonald says. "And we've lost dozens of windshields to thrown rocks. Having a windshield explode in front of you, with glass flying everywhere, can really make you jumpy."
Civilians have also become targets. In a recent rock-throwing incident in Nogales, a large chunk of broken, jagged asphalt crashed near a woman and her baby carriage. "Some of these illegals are just wild men, they don't much care what they're throwing at," McDonald says. "They just want to hit something."
The uncontrolled "rockings" have become a symbol of the impotence of the federal presence on the border--and never more so than earlier this year, when the Border Patrol was forced to move agents back from the actual fence line to positions a block away.
It was the first time in memory that officers have in effect abandoned a U.S. border. Although many agents have been moved back this month into what McDonald calls "the hot zone," it is uncertain how long they will remain. It isn't always just rocks that are whizzing over the border fence.
Twice in February, bursts of automatic weapons fire coming from a border neighborhood in Nogales, Sonora, called Buenos Aires--an area, McDonald says, where even Mexican federales fear to tread--sent agents scrambling for cover. No one saw exactly where the shots were coming from.
McDonald, walking along a dusty stretch of border fence just east of downtown Nogales, admits that such random acts of violence are hardest for agents to stomach.
"The fact that you could be hurt or killed, and never know what hit you or why," he says, "does take a toll on people.
"But," he shrugs, "this is what we are paid to do."
His attitude is typical of most agents, who publicly put on a brave face when discussing their hazardous duty. Border Patrol officers, McDonald says, are good soldiers.
"We will continue to do all we can with the resources we have available. We take orders, and we do our best to carry them out."
But privately, many officers express weariness with their job and outrage at the political realities that have turned their daily lives into a dangerous exercise in futility.
With only enough manpower to field a token force--a mere dozen officers are in the field in the Nogales area at any one time--the task of stopping thousands of illegal aliens is akin to emptying the ocean with a bucket.
There isn't even any money in the Border Patrol budget to plug up the hundreds of holes--one every 20 or so yards--in the border fence. Some officers have tried to fashion makeshift patches out of scrap metals, but to no avail. Patches welded to the fence one day are simply kicked in or removed by illegals the next.
One agent says that burnout and its manifestations--especially alcoholism--are commonplace.
"This whole thing is hopeless," he says, pausing to spit on the ground, where a thousand footprints left by illegals fleeing over the border have left their marks in the dirt.
"Just look out there," he scoffs, pointing at a scrub-covered hill where dozens of illegals are strolling through a hole in the fence, secure in the knowledge they will not be caught.
"How can we stop that? We don't even have enough men out here to put fear into them so they don't rock us or shoot us. If the people in Washington could only see what was happening, they would have to give us more to fight with."
But people in Washington are well aware of the chaos and violence of the Arizona border. They just choose to look the other way.
@body:U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno visited Nogales in January as part of a fact-finding tour of the border. The AG, whose Department of Justice oversees the Border Patrol, was given a special tour of the area--missing only two of Nogales, Arizona's, most dangerous streets, which were ruled off-limits by her FBI security detail.
According to observers, Reno watched from a car, parked 50 feet from the fence. With somber detachment, she watched agents running for cover from a hail of rocks, she saw the border leaking human beings like a sieve. All the while, she quietly took notes.
What she saw moved her enough to announce, in a later meeting with western governors, including Fife Symington, that "measures would be taken" to help control the situation.
Word quickly spread along the Arizona border that Nogales was due for a major manpower infusion. After all, the station was suffering from a shortage of resources even before the latest immigration wave began to roll in.
About 90 Border Patrol agents were stationed in Nogales during most of the last decade, and even though Congress increased the agency's responsibilities in 1986--making drug interdiction a priority for the force--the station was given no more personnel, weapons or vehicles to do its expanded job. In fact, the station's budget declined. Today, only about 70 officers are assigned to Nogales.
Although there are now a total of 287 agents posted to Arizona--who must cover the entire border except for the area around Yuma (some 340 miles), Tucson and all the desert in between--the ratio of officers to border miles is still the lowest in the country.
The severity of the imbalance is best reflected by comparing Nogales to the station that is perhaps most similar--McAllen, Texas. While Nogales and McAllen both reported capturing a similar number of aliens last year, the Texas station has 455 agents, who patrol a mere 80 miles of border--all of it along the Rio Grande, a natural barrier that makes illegal crossings more difficult.
So in the wake of Reno's visit, expectations among local Border Patrol agents were high.
But they were in for a big disappointment.
On February 3, only weeks after her border tour, Reno announced that 1,000 new Border Patrol personnel would be hired this year. But surprisingly, all of the agents would be going to California and Texas.
In addition, a new "administration emphasis" was going to be placed on deporting illegals from the five states "most impacted" by aliens--California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas. Arizona was not mentioned.
To the last man, all of the Border Patrol officers contacted by New Times, both in Washington, D.C., and in Arizona, refused to publicly criticize their boss, Reno. But privately, many say they were outraged.
"She comes down here and sees the disaster that is Nogales," complains one agent, "and then goes home and screws us. Morale was bad that day, let me tell you."
The agents didn't have a monopoly on anger. Arizona Senator John McCain complained that the state had been given short shrift, and charged that Reno was playing politics with the manpower allocations.
McCain pointed out that while many of the states set to receive aid were also some of the most powerful electorally, they were hardly on the front lines of the immigration war.
Scott Celley, McCain's spokesman, says that "it is clear that the Clinton administration was trying to use the new members of the Border Patrol to buy political good will in big states."
"That way Clinton can come back later and claim he was tough on crime and tough on immigration."
Of course McCain, one of Congress' more partisan Republicans, gloried in the chance to embarrass Clinton and Reno. He was undoubtedly delighted to highlight the fact that the attorney general had "betrayed" Arizona by visiting and paying lip service to the state's border troubles.
But there is more to McCain's charges than partisan knife-tossing. Capitol Hill staffers close to Arizona's senior senator, Dennis DeConcini, and staff members within the Department of Justice itself, confirm that politics played a major role in the allotment of new border officers.
The staff members say that Justice officials who were dispatched February 4 to brief an angry DeConcini on the allotment plan were candid about the rationale behind Reno's decision.
"It was deemed a political imperative by the administration that anticrime assets be given to states that matter politically, especially in a congressional election year," says one staffer. "Politics, not actual border conditions, dictated this decision.
"Arizona, from the Clintons' point of view, just doesn't matter."
Apparently, these days, neither does Dennis DeConcini. Perhaps no one had more reason to be upset about the slight to Arizona than the senator--who for almost two decades has fashioned himself as the state's white knight on immigration issues. As chairman of the powerful appropriations subcommittee that oversees immigration, he has managed to funnel significant amounts of federal dollars into the border region.
Of course, one could argue that DeConcini's border efforts were aimed more at feathering the beds of his friends. The border program the senator is most proud of--the aerostat surveillance balloons--has proved unreliable in spotting border-running drug traffickers. A 1990 report on the PBS show Frontline revealed that two former DeConcini staff members, Romano Romani and Robert Mills, left the senator to lobby for TCOM, the company that makes aerostats. TCOM won a $100 million government contract to produce the balloons soon after. DeConcini has also accepted thousands of dollars in contributions from companies that make border-surveillance devices.
But questions about the propriety of some border-oriented pork projects aside, DeConcini's presence on the appropriations subcommittee did ensure that Arizona would never be at the back of the line when funding was dispensed.
He's still on the subcommittee, but as an announced lame duck, he won't be there for long. Staffers say that the fact that DeConcini wasn't even briefed in advance on the Border Patrol allotments shows that he has been deemed irrelevant by his own party.
"Pleasing DeConcini isn't important anymore," a staff member says. "He's on his way out. The voices Clinton heard on this issue were coming from [California's Democratic senators] Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. They're going to be around a while.
"Arizona has lost its voice on immigration control."
Neither Reno nor Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service--which developed the new allocation plan--returned calls from New Times. Meissner, however, has been quoted as saying the plan didn't intentionally exclude Arizona from receiving aid, and has promised--at DeConcini's prodding--to provide 33 additional officers for the state.
McCain mouthpiece Celley calls the promise "a token," since the new officers will be secretaries and clerical staff, not line agents. He blames DeConcini for "failing to be forceful enough."
"DeConcini did nothing to help his state. He didn't seem to care. Where was he during the whole process leading up to these manpower decisions?" Celley asks.
Such sniping over border issues is blossoming into the latest political dust-up between McCain and DeConcini, who enjoy a less-than-collegial relationship.
For his part, DeConcini is angry and defensive at the suggestion that he has become politically impotent. Asked to comment on Celley's slap, he tartly replies that he "doesn't want to get into a pissing match with McCain," but then proceeds to do exactly that.
"John McCain has never added anything to our border," DeConcini says. "Everything that has gotten done down there, that's my doing. I'm just glad he didn't try to kill funding for what we did get."
@body:To Border Patrol agents on the Nogales line, the political infighting in the carpeted salons of Washington, D.C., seems a million miles away. To them, reality is the daily grind of rounding up as many aliens as they can--while hoping that a wild-eyed kid with a rock, or a gun-toting smuggler they may encounter behind a patch of juniper on the dark desert floor, won't make them a casualty of the border wars.
There isn't much time to think. But in the occasional slow moment, at least one agent confesses to pondering the grim absurdity of life on the Arizona line.
"Sometimes I wonder, if I get killed doing this, what is my family going to say I died for?" he says. "To keep one out of five illegal immigrants out of the country?
"Why are conditions allowed to be so bad here? Why do people like [Janet] Reno let it go on?
"I thought we were all supposed to be on the same team.