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Originally published September 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 13, 2010 at 11:59 AM

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America's Immigration Dilemma

Dispatches from the U.S.-Mexico frontier

A Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram reporter and photographer recently traveled the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexico border in 22 days. These are among the...

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram reporter and photographer recently traveled the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexico border in 22 days. These are among the stories they gathered about illegal immigrants, Border Patrol agents, smugglers, Minutemen, businessmen, politicians, ranchers and tourists.

Tijuana, Mexico:
Waiting, watching for a chance to sneak back to his U.S. home

The urge to sneak across the border washes over José Antonio Breton like the waves on the sand at his feet. It's as if the Pacific tide beckons him, as it did when he was 14 and he bawled like a baby because he was afraid he'd drown.

Breton was from the slums, and he didn't know how it would feel to buy $100 tennis shoes. It was before he worked construction in Los Angeles, before he married, before he had his daughter's name — Ginna — tattooed on the back of his neck.

Everything is different now.

From the beach in Tijuana, Mexico, Breton, now 25, could flick a cigarette butt into the United States. But getting humans over the line — "la linea" as they call it — never has been more difficult.

When Breton slipped through 11 years ago, this coastline was one of the busiest smuggling corridors on the planet. Now, thanks to Operation Gatekeeper, the San Diego-Tijuana boundary symbolizes the multibillion-dollar border-security apparatus.

Breton knew that before he returned to Tijuana more than a year ago. But a relative had called him to say his father was dying and wanted to see his son. His father's wake was under way when he returned home. He feels trapped now.

Breton points to the spot, between the border wall and Imperial Beach, Calif., where he was nabbed last time. An agent, maybe the same one who caught him last year, keeps watch.

Video images are received in a control room from a camera atop a 50-foot tower. Other agents watch with binoculars. A constant whine from helicopters mingles with cries of seagulls and laughing, sun-baked children.

These measures were put in place to keep out people such as Breton. He was jailed, deported and ordered to stay out of the United States.

On this day, May 9, Breton's resolve to retrieve the life he lost was as stiff as the towering railroad iron that makes the border fence look like a maximum-security prison.

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One night soon, Breton said, he would stitch together a seaweed blanket and try to swim past the Border Patrol, hoping to be back in L.A. by week's end.

"They told me not to come back," he said of the Border Patrol. "But my heart is bigger. I have to go back for my family. Here, I have nothing."

He may have reached L.A. in time for Ginna's fifth birthday. He also may be back in jail. Or maybe he is still plotting his escape. He promised to drop a line if he makes it.

Four months later, nothing.


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Ariz.:
A natural treasure comes under siege

Cattle ranching and mining once threatened the cacti and wildlife of the Sonoran Desert. Illegal immigrants and drug traffickers now are the biggest threats to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, officials say.

Some parts of Organ Pipe have been closed. U.S. authorities — to the dismay of many environmentalists — are nearing completion of an imposing barrier of steel pipe and railroad track, on border-front acreage.

Security was tightened significantly at 300,000-acre Organ Pipe — home to six species of rattlesnakes, an endangered bat and a desert pygmy owl — after a suspected drug smuggler killed a park ranger in 2002.

Park officials also worry that human traffic is damaging the fragile cactus root system and causing majestic Saguaro cactus to topple and die. Nearby Dripping Springs, a rare desert oasis, has been contaminated with high levels of E. coli bacteria.


Deming, N.M.:
Vigilantes patrol, say country is at stake

John Sherwood was explaining why he joined the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and how illegal immigrants will destroy America if they're not stopped. Then it happened.

"There's some right there!" he shouted before whipping his four-wheel-drive pickup around on the dirt road — 10 miles from Deming, N.M., and 35 miles from the border. He used his cellphone to alert the Border Patrol.

Sherwood stood watch for the next hour. He railed against what he described as corrupt Mexican officials and a U.S. president "who is in bed with them." Osama bin Laden could cross the border, "if he hasn't already."

"We're here for one reason: to make a political statement," he said. "We have to secure our borders. ... They're not going to make a cesspool out of [America], like they have their own country."

When the Border Patrol arrived and arrested 14 illegal immigrants, he said it showed "one person can make a difference."

"I have done something," he said. "I am not a couch potato."

Like many Minuteman volunteers, Sherwood is armed. He worries about reprisals. He asked that his last name not be used. Sherwood is his middle name.

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps began patrols in April 2005 in southern Arizona.

Critics have called group members racists or vigilantes. Supporters say they're helping the federal government do a job it won't or can't do alone.


Tucson, Ariz.:
The epicenter for debate, deaths

Remoteness and isolation characterize the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson. This has become ground zero in the debate over illegal immigration.

The sector gave birth to the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps in 2005. Armed activists are building walls with donated money on private land. Liberal advocates are filling blue water jugs for illegal immigrants.

The Border Patrol's Tucson sector guards the 261-mile border between New Mexico and Yuma County, Ariz. Far more arrests are made here than at any other segment.

Sixty miles to the south, in Altar, Mexico, hardly anybody tries to hide the obvious: The village is part of a highly organized immigrant-smuggling network.

They are risking their lives. More than half of the 473 illegal immigrants who died last year were trying to sneak into the southern Arizona region.


Ciudad Juárez, Mexico:
Home-grown plea: Don't cross border

Legal crossers were the target in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Mexicans typically pour across the border on a national holiday. However, many stayed away May 1, the so-called "Day Without Immigrants." As people who didn't heed the call to boycott the U.S. dropped their 30 cents into the turnstile at a Rio Grande bridge, protesters jeered them and yelled, "Don't go to El Paso."

Schoolteacher Fernando Alvarez confronted the protesters, urging them to blame the Mexican government.

"They tell us we have work," he said, "but the salaries are miserable and that's why people leave. In the meantime, [Mexico] doesn't change and the people will just keep emigrating."


Santa Eulalia, Mexico:
Cowboy's life takes root in 2 countries

Alfredo Aldape Aguirre speaks little English, but his deep U.S. ties underscore the difficulty of drawing separation between the two countries, border or no border.

Aldape raises cows and fighting cocks on his 3,000-acre ranch. He has been a U.S. resident since 1977 and drove trucks out of Laredo for 11 years. His wife was born in Grand Rapids, Mich. Three sons, one about to graduate from Texas A&M with a degree in petroleum engineering, are U.S. citizens.

Aldape is central casting for the Mexican cowboy, except he's authentic. He has been riding a horse since age 4.

He's happy on the ranch, but his sons probably will pursue the American dream: "It's a little sad. ... We've been ranching here for three generations. A fourth generation? I don't think it's going to happen."


Eagle Pass, Texas:
Sister cities share common language of neighborliness

Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, still have a palpable sense of cooperation and camaraderie. Locals attribute it to shared isolation, deep mutual ties to cattle ranching and agriculture, and a sense that international trade benefits both cities.

The Eagle Pass Fire Department routinely crosses the border to put out fires in Piedras Negras, where 39 fire hydrants serve 200,000 people.

This also is the only place on the border where, by mutual agreement, Mexican power lines can provide electricity to the U.S. side in the event of an emergency, Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster said.

When a blackout hit Eagle Pass in December, "the first call I got was from the mayor of Piedras Negras saying, 'What can we do to help?' " said Foster, who sounds like a Texas rancher when he speaks English, and a Mexican one when he switches to fluent Spanish.

Golfers at the Eagle Pass Municipal Golf Course, which straddles the Rio Grande, sometimes wait for illegal immigrants to cross the fairway before teeing off, officials said. But talk of sealing the border is a nonstarter.

Guillermo Berchelmann, a state economic-development official on the Mexican side, said U.S. officials should see how these twin cities interact before crafting new border-security legislation.

"To people that have not been exposed to this, it's very difficult to understand," said Berchelmann, a fluent English speaker and a graduate of Texas A&M in College Station.

"We survive from one another. That's what makes us tick."


Laredo, Texas:
Drug trade stirs up vortex of violence

Nowhere is the war on drugs, or at least the war for drug distribution, more intense than in Laredo, Texas, and its Mexican twin, Nuevo Laredo. Cocaine, marijuana, crystal meth and heroin are smuggled inside cars and 18-wheelers, on horses and all-terrain vehicles, and in backpacks carried by human "mules."

Two Mexican cartels battle for access to Interstate 35 — and a slice of the $60 billion that U.S. consumers spend each year on illegal drugs. Gangland-style shootings and police corruption are rampant in Nuevo Laredo.

A year ago, Nuevo Laredo's police chief was gunned down on his first day at work. The Tamaulipas state police chief met a similar fate this year.

Laredo, the refuge of choice for restaurant owners and businessmen, is booming. But Nuevo Laredo has been dealt a crippling economic blow.

The Cadillac Bar, serving frog legs and cold beer since 1926, is one of the few famous watering holes that remain open.

"I've been through floods. I've been through wars. But not this. This is the worst thing that's ever happened to Nuevo Laredo," a waiter said. "We'll see who wins. It's like the era of Al Capone."


Matamoros, Mexico:
A little smuggling, then a swim home

A small-time Mexican smuggler named Roberto explains how, for $50 a pop, he takes illegal immigrants to a gas station in Brownsville, Texas, calls a taxi for them and then swims back home.

Roberto said the best time to swim across the Rio Grande is between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., during a shift change at the Border Patrol.


Boca Chica Beach, Mexico:
Shorelines serve as launching pads

At Boca Chica Beach, Mexican nationals swim and fish, sip beers under colorful umbrellas and eat picnic lunches. Sometimes they stay on their side, sometimes not.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is unfriendly for crossings. Yet, the Rio Grande sector is the primary conduit for immigrants from nations other than Mexico.

Discarded garments and garbage bags cover riverbanks in places such as Hidalgo, Texas. ID cards issued by other governments, often ditched to conceal identities, litter the ground.

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