AT THE SAN YSIDRO BORDER CROSSING WITH MEXICO -- Fifteen years ago, I visited this tumultuous border between San Diego and Tijuana and observed a largely secretive project being carried out by disgruntled border patrolmen and immigration officers.
On their time off, out of desperation with the uncontrolled hordes of Mexicans and others who were then crashing into the United States, these officials were building their own fence. They had quietly located old pieces of metal from naval landing strips from World War II and were knitting them together with wire and anything else they could find. Week after week, in 1990 and '91, these quiet renegades were working to do what most immigration officials had given up on: controlling the border.
It was a terrible time. I remember standing with the Border Patrol one early evening when dozens of young Mexicans were literally hanging on another, more open-mesh fence, like disembodied specters, waiting for their moment to escape to "El Norte."
Out of control
& quot;We called them 'Banzai runs,'" Sean S. Isham, supervisory Border Patrol agent here, reminisced with me recently as we stood at that same spot. "You'd see 300 to 400 people running up the streets afterward and just disappearing." It was clearly immigration out of control -- and thus, a nation out of control.
Meanwhile, in Washington, officials chose to ignore the fence that they pretended not to know about. Every day it reached a little farther, harbinger of a new era.
And today? That original fence is still there, stretching right up and into the Pacific Ocean. Alongside it now are two other, officially built fences, sturdy Sandia and bollard fences, all of them continuing four miles from the ocean to well past the San Ysidro crossing.
When you sit with Joseph Misenhelter, assistant port director, in his office overhanging the juxtaposition of highways, cars, trucks and people crossing here, you see one of the most extraordinary sights in the world.
Below us, a dazzling panorama of modern life, were 24 lanes of traffic. Yet cars were moving quickly, in an orderly fashion, despite the fact that approximately 53,000 cars and between 300 and 350 buses pass through here every day. A "dedicated commuter lane" for those with authorization goes right through.
There is no more let-up now than there was 15 years ago, but this part of the 2,200 miles of America's border with Mexico, the busiest one in the world, is well-organized and technologically advanced beyond what any of us could have dreamed of in those chaotic early days.
Car license readers scan every car and report back to the customs and immigration people in an instant whether, for instance, a car is stolen. Monitors screen cars for evidence of radiation (i.e., potential terrorist materials). Visas based on fingerprints seemed to be working well in the short lines I saw. Radio isotope identifiers check every truck for illicit cargo, human or other. Canine troops, usually dogs saved from the pound, are all around, sniffing avidly for drugs as if it were a game.
Something new has been added to the Border Patrol training at their academy at Glencoe, Ga. -- psychological training. They are taught how to use their instinct and watch people's behavior -- whether they come through trying to look unnaturally innocent, whether they are overly friendly, whether they avoid eye contact or their statements are too well-rehearsed.
What all these many facets of a border patrol/immigration/customs approach (all three are now together in the Department of Homeland Security) mean is that, in place of the squalor I saw 15 years ago, new half-million-dollar homes and shopping malls hug the once terrifying border.
Most remarkably, in 1994 at the beginning of "Operation Gatekeeper" -- the name of this program that started under the Clinton administration -- more than 500,000 illegals were apprehended here; last year, 138,608 were apprehended.
In short, this tough-minded and integrated border of Southern California is working. It shows that the border can be controlled, putting to shame all those self-interested, special-interest Americans who base their argument on the idea that it cannot be.
Of course, the illegals have moved eastward. That is why the governors of New Mexico and Arizona have declared states of immigration emergency.
Universal Press Syndicate