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Improved border security is a challenge for older immigrants

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

TIJUANA, Mexico ” On her first try, Mari Paz said, she clambered over the barrier and walked only a short distance before U.S. Border Patrol agents spotted her. On her second, she slipped through a hidden door. She later tried crawling under the border and sneaking across hidden inside a van.

Mari Paz, who asked that her last name not be used, had left central Mexico bound for Houston, where she hoped for a joyful reunion with the son she hadn’t seen in five years. Friends told the 50-year-old woman that the illegal journey wouldn’t be all that difficult.

But nearly one month, half a dozen attempts and an injured knee later, a family reunion no longer figured in her plans; last month Mari Paz hobbled onto a plane to return home.

America’s vast frontier with Mexico remains a highly porous landscape, where migrants by the hundreds of thousands cross annually. But stepped-up patrols, more barriers and high-tech monitoring have made the boundary impenetrable for many people.

Those who are turned back, like Mari Paz, are often less physically fit and middle-aged. They freeze from fright atop fences. They hurt themselves on nighttime journeys through gully-rutted terrain. They run too slowly to elude Border Patrol agents who spot them with remote cameras.

“This is where my dreams ended,” said Mari Paz, at the border barrier in Tijuana. “Because of this fence, I haven’t been able to see my son.”

U.S. Border Patrol officials said the recent buildup has made it harder to cross and appears to be discouraging people from attempting it. From May 15, when President Bush announced the deployment of National Guard troops on the border, to July 23, the number of apprehensions for illegal crossings dropped 25 percent from the same period a year earlier.

“The perception, I believe, that is occurring in Mexico and, frankly, even further south of Mexico,” said Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar, “is that our capabilities have increased dramatically.”

Federal authorities do not have data showing how many people fail to make it across. But, in one of the few studies touching on the issue, researchers from the University of California, San Diego found that as many as 8 percent of about 1,000 migrants in their study failed to cross.

Wayne Cornelius, the UC San Diego professor who directed the study, and other experts disagree with the Border Patrol’s contention that migration has slowed significantly. Cornelius estimates, however, that tens of thousands of people fail every year to make it to the United States.

“If you hire the right (smuggler) and are willing to accept the higher degree of physical risk, you can get through,” Cornelius said. “But the older people are less tolerant of the kind of risks that young men are willing to take.”

Sara Hernandez, a 49-year-old from Guadalajara, said the fear of getting hurt would keep her from trying again to cross the two fences that separate Tijuana from San Diego.

“The first fence I jumped. But I never dreamed there would be another one, and that it would be so, so tall,” said Hernandez, who fell from the top and sprained her ankle. She eventually went home.

Few people notice the border’s strengthened defenses more than veteran crossers, who recall the easy passages of years past.

Armando Martinez, a 47-year-old farmworker from the state of Sinaloa in Mexico, crossed into San Diego in 1976. “I just walked across and caught the bus,” he said.

In May, Martinez decided to avoid the heavily secured San Diego border and tried to slip through the desert east of Yuma, Ariz. Dizzy, dehydrated and hallucinating after three days, Martinez stumbled upon an emergency beacon and signaled the Border Patrol.

Martinez, a short, skinny man, said the days when he could endure such a long trek are over.

“I’m going to go home to pick crops,” said Martinez, who was interviewed at a migrant safety office in the Mexican town of San Luis Rio Colorado. “I don’t want to try crossing again.”

Jorge Perez Diaz, 48, first came to the United States 25 years ago by walking along the beach from Tijuana. But when he tried crossing last year in the rugged hills east of San Diego, he was forced back by Border Patrol agents.

The disorientation and fatigue he experienced was enough to discourage Perez from making another attempt to reunite with his wife and three sons in San Jose, Calif. “I’m too old now to walk across these mountains,” he said.

Fearing long, brutal treks through the desert, people not in peak physical shape often head to urban areas. That’s where they confront America’s most fortified borders.

At the San Diego-Tijuana border, the two fences ” the first 10 feet high and the second 15 feet high ” line most of the frontier. Stadium lighting illuminates shadowy canyons. Motion sensors have been seeded across hills and beaches. Most recently, video surveillance cameras have been erected, and National Guard troops have arrived.

The number of apprehensions in the San Diego area has jumped 18 percent in the period from Oct. 1 through Aug. 7 over the same period a year earlier.

Among people recently opting to cross through San Diego rather than the desert was Mari Paz, the mother of four grown children.

She isn’t able to get a tourist visa because she doesn’t have significant assets. Mexicans who want to visit the U.S. are required to show that they have bank accounts, real estate or other property that would ensure they return to Mexico.

Smugglers took Mari Paz to a safe house in the notorious smuggling haven of Rancho Escondido, a shantytown on Tijuana’s eastern fringes. From there, traffickers lead migrants to an area that has only one fence, which is easily scaled. After climbing it, they crossed several miles of brush-covered hills to getaway cars in San Diego’s Otay Mesa area.

It looks deceptively simple, said Mari Paz, a short, dark-skinned woman with long black hair and a weary smile, during a visit to the fence.

“From here, (the smugglers) said, it would take only 15 minutes to get to the pickup spot, but I couldn’t make it,” she said.

Mari Paz said that after she jumped the fence, Border Patrol agents quickly found her and ordered her to climb back into Mexico.

She tried later that day by going through a hidden door in the solid steel fence but was again unable to avoid agents.

On the second day, smugglers took Mari Paz and 14 other women on a different route closer to the warehouses and office parks of Otay Mesa. This way avoids a long trek but requires scaling two fences, one with hard-to-navigate angled metal mesh at the top.

Smugglers hung a flimsy metal ladder from the 15-foot height. When Mari Paz reached the top, she almost lost her nerve. “I said to myself, `What am I doing here?’ . . . I was so scared. But then I thought to myself, everything is for my son.”

She jumped into the arms of the smugglers. But three Border Patrol agents showed up and arrested them. The next day, she tried the same route again and was caught by the same agents, she said.

Another night, the smugglers took her through a muddy drainage channel and told her to scurry into a small pipe, where she would crawl through a vast storm-drain network. Sizing up the pipe, Mari Paz balked.

Frustrated, but buoyed by her growing barrier-climbing skills, Mari Paz on another night again tried to scale the taller fence. But on the way down the other side she slammed her knee and fractured it.

The smugglers, she said, carried her back to the safe house, where they tried to treat her swollen knee.

We can still get you across, they promised.

The next day a van pulled up. Fourteen people lay on top of each other ” like tacos, Mari Paz said ” before she was placed on top and blankets were thrown over the group.

The plan was for a corrupt U.S. inspector to wave the car through, said Mari Paz, who overheard the smugglers. But when the car approached the border, the radio squawked with news that the inspector had been rotated from the booth. The driver jumped out and fled.

Mari Paz said U.S. inspectors stared in disbelief when they discovered the pile of people. The inspectors gave her painkillers, she said, and then pushed her back to Tijuana in a wheelchair.

Smugglers made Mari Paz another offer. For $4,000 they could design a metal compartment and affix it ” with her inside ” to the bottom of a car.

But Mari Paz had only $3,000. She opted to give up.

At home, Mari Paz said she would have forceful advice to offer any of her three sons contemplating a journey to the U.S.: “I don’t want any of them to cross. Because it’s so hard and so sad.”

Times staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.


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