Pressure Point

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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.

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Darrin Hostetler