Mexicans criticize plan to extend fence

Security walls will not stop people from trying to cross U.S. border illegally, they say


TIJUANA, Mexico -- The 14-mile border fence at the edge of this town has stopped lots of would-be illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States at this spot. But it has not stopped them from trying.

Every day, the agents of Mexico's Grupo Beta border patrol collect the homemade ladders and other devices immigrants leave behind when they scale the fence at night. They report the new holes beneath the fence and tend to the hobbled and frustrated who got turned back.

Most immigrants, they say, just go east, making a more dangerous crossing in the mountains where there is no fence.

"They can put up four or five fences, but the immigration won't stop," said Antonio Javier Ruiz, 27, an auto mechanic who had climbed atop a water tower to spot U.S. Border Patrol vehicles in preparation for his attempt. "It's not to mock the laws of the U.S., but to demonstrate that you can do it."

The efforts are a testament to human determination and ingenuity. They also explain Mexico's angry response this month to the U.S. House's approval of legislation that would extend the fence some 700 miles through other populated parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. The fence would cost an estimated $2.2 billion.

President Vicente Fox called the proposal "shameful." His foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, called it "stupid." And they insisted on calling the barrier a "wall," not a fence, echoing the dispute over the barrier the Israelis built to separate themselves from Palestinians in the West Bank.

Mexican officials do not want the United States to impede the flow of immigrants over the border in search of jobs. Since he took office, Fox has pushed the Bush administration to adopt immigration reforms that would make that flow safer, more orderly and legal.

"If they put up more walls, they will stop a few more people, but there will also be more people injured," said Evenor Medrano, 30, a doctor who supervises the Grupo Beta office in Tijuana. "There is more hurry and more stress, and the polleros [human smugglers] are more violent.

"We see fingers lost because of the way the fence is built, sharp on top," he said. "Sometimes, the polleros push people over. There are four or five injuries a week. The other day we saw a woman - she was eight months pregnant. She had a fracture in her left knee."

Critics point out that the number of illegal immigrants entering the United States has not dropped since the U.S. began building the security fences in urban areas in the early 1990s. But each year a higher number die of drowning, hypothermia, dehydration or heat exhaustion in the deserts of Arizona or elsewhere.

U.S. officials say the fences are most effective where they are backed up by enough patrols, helicopters, motion detectors, stadium-like lighting and high-tech surveillance equipment. Currently, 106 miles of the 2,000-mile border have newer, 10-foot-high security fences in five locations.

Todd Fraser, a Border Patrol spokesman, said the Tijuana fence's success is shown by the fact that only 126,913 people were apprehended trying to cross there this year. In 1995, the number was about 524,000.

The new legislation, sponsored by Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, calls for building sections of fence in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The legislation did not include reforms proposed by President Bush and others to channel more of the immigration through a legal guest-worker program.

On a tour of Tijuana's fence line, the Mexican border agents showed off the known weak spots and explained the cat-and-mouse games between the immigrants and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Not a mile from his office, Medrano shows one spot where immigrants scale a cinder block fence on the edge of an abandoned car yard. From there, they can leap over an older iron border fence and then try to run through a breach in the newer security fence where trucks pass through.

"The Border Patrol knows all this, but they have to sleep and these guys run very fast," said Medrano.

In plain sight on a Tijuana hill, a group of six would-be immigrants had made a little camp and were frying a meat-and-onions lunch as they made plans to scale the fence.

"We're just waiting for nighttime," said Juan Lopez, 40, of Mexico City, who said he had just been deported from Long Beach, Calif., where he has a wife and children. "It's the terrorists' fault that they are doing this, but now they are taking it out on everyone."

After dark, east of town, Medrano pointed out a human-size hole they found the day before beneath the first fence. U.S. Border Patrol agents had since filled it with concrete blocks.

Pointing through a peek hole at a larger security fence, Medrano pointed out how immigrants scale a locked door in the fence, and how their homemade ladders had made all kinds of chinks in the screen on top.

"This is a great place to cross," he said.

Hugh Dellios writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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