In mid-December I revisited Sarita, a place in the open, flat range country on Texas Route 77, where the only building is a wooden shed—a long converted trailer that houses the US Border Patrol. The Rio Grande and Mexico lie about sixty miles south, but the Sarita checkpoint is the last stop on the road out of the Rio Grande Valley. Many Texans, and most illegal aliens, consider it the real border of the United States.

When I was there last summer the shack seemed to shimmer in the tropical heat, but now a frigid wind howls across the road, rattling the cars and trucks that have been impounded in the parking lot for having transported aliens and drugs. At the door of the shed, a border patrol agent politely asks each motorist passing through, “Are you a US citizen?” He waves most on, but he also opens trunks, taps the sides of doors, climbs inside trailer trucks to inspect the cargo.

Night falls. Whenever the agent orders a vehicle to park, more agents emerge from the shed with flashlights to examine the trunks and trailers for contraband. Usually a dog helps them, but the dog is sick tonight, so the agents themselves crouch and sniff over the cargo and over the opened luggage racks of buses.

The agents, wearing olive drab and stocking caps against the cold, are mostly bilingual Mexican-Americans: they have a tough manner and much experience with the drug trade. A sixth sense seems to tell them when something is amiss, and they are trained to detect the signs of stress—breathless speech, sweating palms, twitching muscles—that betray the smuggler.

Tonight’s catch is like most others. Between sunset and midnight, three drug traffickers, all handcuffed, are taken inside the shed—a Mexican-American truck driver; a black bus passenger; and a blond motorist, long-haired, a junkie, his hands brown from pot, his arms full of holes, whom the border patrolmen immediately label “Charles Manson.” The contraband they carried seems to fill the office—nearly $300,000 worth of marijuana, grown in Mexico and tightly packed in bales of plastic. No cocaine is found tonight, but cocaine seizures worth many millions are not uncommon at this checkpoint.

A seismic sensor hidden in the ground miles away beeps on a computer and signals that someone has been trying to bypass the checkpoint. I get into a dilapidated truck with a pair of patrolmen and we ride into open fields beneath a half-moon. We crouch in the sparse vegetation, waiting for the illegal aliens who the agents know are out there somewhere, moving northward on narrow trails, led probably by a coyote, a smuggler whom they pay to lead them around the checkpoint. No luck; they elude us and escape to the north. When the beeper sounds again the agents do better: they find a dozen aliens squatting in the grass, and when the agents seize them they offer no resistance. They are dressed in summer clothes, and carry a bottle of orange soda to give them energy. One youth wears a medal of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe. “No me servió—She didn’t help me,” he laughs.

These aliens are mostly Mexican; they will be back in Mexico by dawn. They are led to a murky, windowless cell at the end of the shed along with a young Honduran and an elderly Salvadoran, an evangelical who holds up a Bible as his passport and reads relentlessly to his fellow captives, who fall asleep on the floor.

An hour before dawn, I accompany a pair of agents to check the freight train that passes northward each night on the tracks nearby. It may carry concealed drugs or convey scores of aliens from the border, men, women, and small children, hidden in open gravel gondolas or locked in box cars, or lying down on the roofs or on bars between the wheels. Sometimes the aliens lose their grip and are crushed to death; others suffocate when the sealed cars are left to idle in the sun.

The train rolls slowly on, but I stop counting at a hundred cars. Tonight’s check is cursory: the border patrol is undermanned, and the fierce wind nearly blows the agents off as they leap from roof to roof, seeking aliens they cannot find.

We return to the shed. Soon after dawn, a middle-aged Cuban man driving north from Brownsville in a rented car is arrested with two young women, a boy of nineteen, and a little girl. The Cuban is a legal resident of the US, but his passengers are Nicaraguans with false papers. Trembling, the Cuban is locked up in the tiny felons’ cell with the three drug traffickers: he risks losing his residence permit and may face deportation. The boy is confined with the evangelical Salvadoran, who reads to him from the Bible. The women are locked in the female detention room with the restless child.


Later, in the office amid bales of marijuana, the Nicaraguans are “processed” by the US Border Patrol. The agents read them their rights in Spanish and present them with copious forms to sign. They are from León in western Nicaragua. They say, “We’ve come so far. We were going to Miami.” The child jumps up and down, hugging my boots, but her elders are weeping. “After all they did to us in Mexico…,” her mother says. I tell her that the border patrol are more merciful than the Mexican police.


My night with the border patrol at Sarita marked the end of a journey that began last summer in the Rio Grande Valley and led me deep into Mexico. The valley, extending along the border roughly from Rio Grande City in the west to Brownsville near the Gulf of Mexico, is like a tiny nation. The residents on the Texan side of the river are mostly Mexican in origin (there are few blacks), and while many are bilingual the predominant tongue is Spanish. Brownsville, the US city closest to Central America, attracts multitudes of Central Americans. Across the narrow, twisting river from Brownsville one can see the Mexican city of Matamoros, known for its violence.1

In the normal climate of intense, wet heat, the scenes of daily life along the river—near the International Gateway Bridge and the Brownsville and Matamoros Bridge not far away—may shock the visitor. Naked Mexican men can be seen standing on the opposite bank, waiting to wade across once the US Border Patrol passes. They swim with their clothes in plastic bags on top of their heads, wait in the high grass for their bodies to dry, then dress again. They discard the plastic bags—the shore is littered with them—and then dash toward downtown Brownsville, where they try to blend with the population. Pregnant women wade across the river to have their babies in Brownsville so that they will be US citizens.

Some of the aliens are poor Mexicans from the interior seeking work in the US. Some are “river rats” from Matamoros who spend much of their lives going back and forth between the two border towns. Gangs of undernourished children regularly cross the river to the Amigoland Mall, where they steal not only T-shirts and candy bars, but also gold paint, chrome paint, liquid cement, and glue. They pour the chemicals into Coca-Cola cans and sniff them. The fumes often destroy the membranes of their nostrils, damage their brain cells, and can turn them into idiots. Adult glue-sniffers and drunkards can be found in Hope Park, by the Gateway Bridge, where they knife and rob one another, as well as unlucky refugees who pass their way. At night, on the bridge, gangs of smartly dressed transvestites often rush past the US Customs; some escape arrest, and walk to Market Square, where they loiter on corners, soliciting sexual partners. The Brownsville police told me that dozens of bodies turn up in the river each year, drowned in crossing or dumped there in the drug wars.

Nearly all Mexicans caught by the US Border Patrol are “VR’d.” This means that the Mexican, unless caught committing a crime, waives his right to appear before an immigration judge and accepts immediate “Voluntary Return.” At the border patrol station, or more often in an enclosed van, the agent fills out a multiplicate I-213 form with the alien’s vital particulars, and the Mexican signs another form, an I-274. This can turn into a ritual, with a dozen Mexicans laughing and signing at the same time because it is largely meaningless. They are driven to the bridge where they walk into Mexico, and within half an hour all of them may be back in the United States. A Mexican may cross the river six times a day, but whenever he is caught again he must be “processed”—entangling the patrolman in more paper work as other illegal aliens run free.

In mid-November, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) announced that along the southwestern border from Texas to California it had made nearly one million arrests in 1988 and nearly nine hundred thousand during the first ten months of 1989. The US Census Bureau estimates (conservatively) that between 2.5 and 3 million Central and South Americans are living in the United States, and that most of them arrived during the last decade. The border patrol officials I talked to told me they estimate that during the last two years at least 100,000 Central Americans have illegally entered the Rio Grande Valley.

They come from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Fleeing war and misery in their homelands, they soon meet misery of other kinds. Many come by bus, but others walk and hitch rides. Having sold all their possessions, they may carry hundreds or thousands of dollars, but in Guatemala they are sometimes robbed by the police and army. A worse experience awaits them in Mexico, as they proceed a thousand miles up the Gulf Coast from Villahermosa to Vera Cruz to Tampico toward Matamoros and Texas.


In Brownsville, dozens of Central Americans told me chilling tales of how, at bus stations, the Mexican municipal and judicial police often rob them of all they have. On the roads, the federal police not only rob them but drag pretty young women to cement rooms and rape them. When the migrants have no more money, coyotes and taxi drivers, working with the police, sometimes hold them hostage in slums and farmhouses until their families in the US wire them money for ransoms. 2 Some women must sell their bodies to policemen in order to continue up the coast or across the Rio Grande.

In Matamoros, I met thirty-five Salvadoran young men and children locked up in the municipal jail and about to be deported because they could pay no bribes. Coyotes loiter at the Matamoros bus station, claiming they can deliver migrants to Houston for $1,000 or more. Throughout Mexico, many of the migrants have nothing to eat as they move northward. Entire families reach the Rio Grande carrying infants sick from diarrhea and dehydration. Yet on the banks of the river, more terrors await them.

On the Mexican side, bandits with knives and guns may rob them again: some of the bandits are policemen. On the US side, away from the bridges, in woodlands and fields, families are robbed and the women raped as their children are forced at gunpoint to look on. The border patrol tries to catch them, but the bandits often escape. “It’s maddening,” a patrolman told me. “You see a bandit with his gun to a woman’s head. By the time you get there, the bandit has jumped into the river and swum to the other bank. He stands on the bank, dancing, with the money in his teeth. You can’t do a thing.”

The US Border Patrol is the uniformed branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and it is under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Justice. Some liberals have attacked the patrol as a semifascist police force that arrests and harasses hungry aliens who have entered the US in desperation. No doubt there have been abuses, but in general such accusations seem to me unfair. I spent weeks with the patrol, and repeatedly saw the agents treat people decently. I spoke with others who confirmed my impressions. Often the agents looked the other way, exercising discretionary power and bending the rules to give honest aliens a chance. They arranged the release of a Salvadoran orphan to my custody so I could drive him to live with his uncle in Dallas. They are trying to enforce an unenforceable law.

The US Border Patrol and the INS use a bureaucratic slang that is at first daunting for the neophyte to grasp. Mexicans are “locos”—locals. Central Americans are “OTMs”—Other Than Mexicans. All illegal aliens are “EWIs”—Entered Without Inspection. An alien released without bond (rare now) used to be “OR’d”—released on his own recognizance—but last winter the INS changed its rules. In late 1988, as illegal immigration rose dramatically and thousands more Central Americans crossed the Rio Grande, Washington decided that the migrants could no longer continue north and must be confined to the valley. Previously an alien could simply register in the valley with the INS, then travel on to Houston, Miami, New York, Los Angeles, where his case for asylum could be heard. In fact, few aliens showed up for their hearings: most vanished into the underground immigrant economies of the large cities.

So the INS cracked down on the aliens still near the border, and for months early last year the valley resembled a police state. In a poorly conceived operation called “Hold the Line,” hundreds of additional border patrol agents were shipped in. Their helicopters hovered over the river and the streets of Brownsville hunting aliens. Hundreds of Central Americans crowded into squalid motels, which the patrol regularly raided.3

Nevertheless, the flood of new refugees, particularly from Nicaragua, became unmanageable; refugees wandered the streets, without food and shelter, sleeping in alleys. Casa Oscar Romero, a large alien shelter run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, became so overcrowded that hundreds of refugees, including sick children, camped out on a nearby field in the mud and rain, without provisions or sanitation. Hate groups sprang up, accusing Casa Romero, the Roman Catholic Church, and refugee rights organizations such as Proyecto Libertad of importing “communism” into the valley. Ordinary citizens complained that the aliens were becoming an intolerable social burden. The members of an anti-immigrant group even constructed a tower overlooking Casa Romero to monitor the movements in and out of coyotes and “subversives.”

The American Red Cross set up a shelter in empty federal buildings near the river to house alien families. The aliens were obliged to register with the INS but were otherwise free to move about Brownsville. Aliens without families were less lucky: those caught by the border patrol were transported far out into the countryside to an INS facility in Bayview blandly called the “Port Isabel Service Processing Center.”

Critics have called the Bayview complex a “concentration camp.” After I spent a day there, this seemed to me an overstatement, but unquestionably it is a dreary place. The vast dusty grounds and ugly low buildings are surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence, and there is no escape. The prisoners (“detainees”) are required to undress, undergo delousing, and put on identical orange jumpsuits. Nearly all their movements, even in their neat dormitories, are monitored by television cameras. The food is prepared by the prisoners themselves, and it is delicious. Activists from such refugee rights organizations as Proyecto Libertad claim that medical care at the prison has sometimes been inadequate, and that recalcitrant prisoners have occasionally been roughed up. Last summer, a guard was arrested for sexually abusing young male immates. And since Bayview is so remote, prisoners have been restricted in their ability to consult lawyers.

Last winter, as Bayview’s population climbed into the several thousands, and several hundred had to live in tents, angry prisoners tried to tear out the barbed-wire fence. The INS seemed deliberately to be trying to induce depression and anxiety among the migrants. News on the alien grapevine travels swiftly, and, by allowing the camp to become overcrowded, the INS hoped to deter further Central Americans from coming. (And not just Central Americans: Algerians, Nigerians, Syrians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Yugoslavs, West Germans, Australians, Chinese, among many other nationalities, cross the border from Mexico and are confined at Bayview.) “I’ve been a prisoner here for six months,” a young Salvadoran woman told me, “and now I just want to go home.” Rather than remaining in Bayview, some Central Americans accept “Voluntary Return,” and, during the last year, thousands more throughout the US have been deported, under protest, to their native countries.

In Bayview’s bare courtroom. I watched an immigration judge decide whether to grant political asylum to a long line of Central Americans in orange jumpsuits. He frequently refused, and ordered them deported. However, it was soon clear that most of the deportees were unmarried men without money or lawyers, and without relatives already living in the United States. The more I saw of the labyrinth of US immigration law, with its complexity of rules governing the right to asylum, the clearer it became that this very complexity helps many aliens to remain in the United States.

The INS contends that most Central Americans seeking political asylum do not have a “well-founded fear” of persecution in their native countries, as the law requires, but are “economic refugees” seeking a richer life—an argument that has been cruelly used to exclude Salvadorans. In recent years federal courts have broadened the criteria for asylum, ruling that subjective fears and general conditions of war and upheaval should be considered as well as direct evidence of persecution.4 The INS has repeatedly tried to circumvent such rulings. Nevertheless, in different ways, legally or illegally, most Central Americans have eluded deportation.

In practice, the INS rarely separates families and it allows aliens to join their relatives once the relatives pay a bond of $3,000, or of $1,500 if the immigration judge decides to reduce the amount at a hearing. (At Bayview and Casa Romero, one hears aliens pleading on the telephone with their relatives and friends to send them bond and travel money. From Casa Romero they go to pick it up at Western Union, where more coyotes, promising deliverance, lie in wait for them.) Unaccompanied minors are almost never deported—homes are found for them. Once an alien is ordered deported, a stay of the order can be obtained. If the alien has a lawyer, the case can be argued in federal courts, and the deportation can be delayed indefinitely. In any case, the Central American countries do not want their emigrants back. Repatriation must be negotiated by the US authorities, and this compounds the delays. Many aliens released on bond from Bayview and other INS prisons simply forfeit the bond as their ticket of admission to the United States, and disappear into ghettoes scattered throughout the country.5

Few Nicaraguans are deported because the Reagan and Bush administrations have considered them refugees from Communist oppression.6 Many of the Nicaraguan aliens are middle class. The policies and mismanagement of the Sandinistas have not only reduced Nicaragua to penury, but driven away most of its professionals and technically trained middle class without whom any modern economy would have difficulty in functioning.7 I was astonished at the number of Nicaraguan physicians, mechanics, engineers, and teachers I met wading across the Rio Grande or in the captivity of the border patrol. I also met many contras, the other cause of Nicaragua’s misery. For the most part they seemed defeated and subdued, though some proudly displayed their bullet wounds. Nicaraguans are now the most numerous of Central Americans entering the valley. President Reagan’s absurd prophecy that south Texas might be invaded by Nicaragua has come weirdly true.

Salvadorans make up the second largest group of aliens. The INS discriminates against them because they are fleeing from a “democracy.” A federal court has ordered the INS to be more generous in recognizing Salvadorans’ genuine fears of persecution, but the INS continues to resist the court’s decision.8 Yet even most Salvadorans, the deeper they get into the legal system, take advantage of its intricacy and manage to stay. The result of this maze is that today most of the Central Americans being deported are single Honduran and Guatemalan men.

This leaves out those many thousands of Central Americans who somehow manage to avoid the border patrol and whom the INS never sees. Legally or illegally, most aliens succeed eventually in escaping from captivity in the valley. Once outside, they must live in the limbo to which illegal immigrants are condemned, perhaps safe for now from deportation but often in fear of a knock on the door and uncertain of their future. Life in the poor city neighborhoods, where most end up, is hard. Legally many cannot work, and it is work they yearn for—without their remittances, their families at home may starve.

From Casa Romero last September the refugees sent a letter to President Bush:

We are here because we want peace, human living conditions, justice and education for ourselves and our children. We respect the laws of this powerful country. We do not want to remain here illegally. WORK. We want to work. That is a human right. We do not want to burden your economy. We will work even in areas assigned by your government.

It is rather doubtful that Bush read it. Any INS official will concede that though the aliens include a criminal element of coyotes and drug smugglers, the overwhelming number of Central American aliens are honest men and women who simply want to work. Operation “Hold the Line” largely failed. The border patrol agents who had been brought in from other parts of the country left the valley and the local patrol was as short of manpower as it had been before. For a time, the quantities of aliens subsided, but they kept coming, and recently they have risen again. This is a migration that cannot be stopped.


In mid-October I went to Mexico, spending weeks in Matamoros and in Reynosa, seventy miles west on the Rio Grande. In both border cities, I visited the jails, which for their squalor and brutality rival those I saw in Central America. At the jail of the judicial police in Matamoros, fifty men were squeezed into two small cells, where they had to sleep standing up. As I talked to the prisoners, I saw human excrement being thrown through the broken window of one cell. Men in the courtyard of the “Center for Social Readaptation,” the large prison next door, were hurling the waste, shouting they would not stop until the prisoners inside gave them money, shoes, and clothes. The judicial police themselves are notorious for their traffic in stolen cars and trucks.

The major prison at Reynosa is even worse. Built for two hundred people, it houses nearly nine hundred men and women, including over a dozen US citizens, most of them arrested for drug trafficking. (Hundreds of US citizens are now confined in Mexican jails for running drugs, many more than a year ago.) The prison crawls with rats and vermin; some of the Americans live in the teeming open courtyard, which has no drainage, and sleep in water when it rains. Drugs are easily purchased, and I saw elaborately tattooed Mexicans high on marijuana and cocaine. “You cannot survive here unless you have lots of money,” an American inmate says. “Some prisoners have private rooms, air conditioning, color television, drugs, and women. Four of us have paid $16,000 to a Mexican lawyer, and he did nothing.” Women prisoners sell their bodies to survive. An inmate without money barely eats.

In one border prison I met a young American who had been arrested, not for running drugs but for unlicensed possession of hunting rifles. When I returned to the US, I found the following letter from him:

I remember waking in a room still handcuffed and feeling real sore. One officer came in with a statement that I was a terrorist. I told him no way, he left, 20 mins passed and 3 officers came in made me kneal [sic] in front of a wall with my face against it and started to beat me across my back, my legs, and kidneys…. About 10 mins later 2 officers came back with a hand grenade. They stuck it in my pocket with about 5 feet of string tied to the pin and started leading me around the room…. They found out I had about $900.00 US. They passed it around I got left with about $200.00 US and they put me in a cell. At about this point I knew I was in serious trouble. I had another seizure that night and begged them for some medication…. They took me out back [and] put a plastic bag over my face. I got to the point of blacking out and they brought the same statement of being a terrorist I would not sign….

US consular officials can do little to protect such Americans. Mexican prisoners suffer the same terrors on a much greater scale. A prisoner is presumed guilty until proven innocent under Mexico’s version of the Napoleonic Code, and torture is a matter of routine. The police have only seventy-two hours to produce a confession, and often do so by severe beatings, by forcing mineral water and hot chili up the suspects’ noses, and by applying electric prods to the genitalia. Suspects with enough money—even drug traffickers and rapists of children—can be out on the street within hours. Once charged, a prisoner must wait in grim conditions for at least a year to appear before a judge for trial. After sentencing, American drug traffickers can petition to be transferred to US federal prisons.

The US government is applying mounting pressure on the Mexican government to control the drug traffic. Now that stricter controls are having some effect in Florida, California, and on the seas, Mexico has increasingly become the “bridge” of the Colombian drug lords for smuggling cocaine into the United States. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says that at least 35 percent of US cocaine enters from Mexico. In contrast to his predecessors, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, in office for a year, seems not only personally honest but genuinely determined to reduce corruption. But even his efforts to stop drugs have yielded bizarre results.

We can hardly complain that the Mexican police do not seize drugs: they intercept enormous quantities. Drug interdiction is the job of the Policía Judicial Federal de Investigación de Narcóticos of the attorney general of the Republic. At the headquarters of the federales in Matamoros, Tampico, and Vera Cruz, I saw many bags of confiscated drugs and several confiscated trucks. The commander in Vera Cruz showed me piles of elaborate reports on drug arrests, written in elegant Spanish; the originals had been sent to Mexico City in order to prove his diligence.

US officials told me that the torture of prisoners is worst in the jails run by these police. They must meet quotas of arrests and confiscated drugs, their careers and promotions depend on confessions, and they have only those seventy-two hours to obtain them. “Body counts,” a US official calls them. “It’s mostly a game.” What happens to the drugs after confiscation is another question: supposedly they are burned, but often they are sold again on the open market.

Lieutenant George Gavito is an American deputy sheriff in Brownsville deeply involved in efforts to stop the drug traffic on both sides of the border. He told me that “drug loads confiscated in Mexico are unprotected” by high officials of the government. “Protected loads get through. A comandante gets a call from his bosses in Mexico City, and the load goes through.” Comandantes in the provinces get commissions for their compliance, and themselves make millions. “The Colombians have bought out the bosses.” Which bosses? “The number four or number five man in the Mexican government. People in the antinarcotics office and the attorney general’s office. Salinas has cleaned up a lot, but those men are still there. Washington has all the names. Why are they still there?”9

The Mexican game with the United States, Gavito went on, is full of twists. The bosses “protect the big traffickers only. They protect a drug shipment all the way to the border, but then sometimes they tip us off, and we know when to look for a big load. They want to stay in our good graces.”

US officials in south Texas say that cocaine traffic from Mexico has quintupled during the last year. Armando Ramirez, director of the DEA in the Brownsville district, told me:

Before it was marijuana, mostly, but now cocaine is the drug of choice. Just in the last year, our cocaine seizures in Brownsville have soared. There are cocaine airfields—small air strips—all over farms in this area. We keep confiscating BMWs and houses with upside-down crucifixes and custommade gold bathrooms. Who are they? Old dope families on both sides of the border, and they’re hard to penetrate. It’s generational. Dopers breed dopers.

Large amounts of cash are laundered daily in Brownsville through currency exchange houses and pawnshops just across the Gateway Bridge. The DEA looks for sudden signs of money: it monitors exchange houses with hidden television cameras, and obtains warrants to invade the houses and ranches of overnight millionaires. On the bridge, traffickers have grown increasingly subtle. They favor trucks and vans with large gasoline tanks they can divide into compartments where drugs can be concealed. They use chemicals to disguise the smell of drugs and confuse the dogs of US Customs. Like the border patrol, customs agents are adept at recognizing smugglers, but they are understaffed, the traffic on the bridges is heavy, and they say they can do no more than make random checks.

Away from the bridges, in wooded areas and farmland, I spent many nights crouching in high grass with the border patrol trying to observe drug runs, a frustrating adventure. Sometimes big loads are intercepted, but more often the smugglers slip through. The patrol’s ground sensors are in disrepair, their vans are falling apart, their budget has been cut, and they are reduced to skeleton crews along dozens of miles of river. President Bush’s new proposals to Congress would allocate only $50 million more for drug interdiction, to be shared among New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, and the entire southwest border.

“There is no war on drugs,” Lieutenant Gavito told me. “It’s a farce. We have no resources in south Texas. We had a Coast Guard cutter in Port Brownsville, and they sent it to Galveston. We sometimes have intelligence on deliveries, but if we’re three or four hundred yards off, we miss the drugs. We need airplanes and Blackhawk helicopters with infrared cameras to fly all night along the border. The DEA, the Customs, the border patrol and the local police need money, manpower, and equipment. We need more intelligence resources and informers, but in south Texas where the drugs are coming through we’re getting nothing.

“The border of Texas is wide open. If I were a big drug trafficker, I’d contribute money to the Republican Party. I wouldn’t want Bush to change anything.”


Several border patrolmen told me, “If it makes sense, Washington won’t listen.” Yet US policies on the border have become so sterile and self-defeating that Washington may have to listen. US law excluding most Central American aliens is unworkable, and should be liberalized. The US government cannot, of course, simply open the gates. The US has every right to exclude and deport alien criminals. Yet since so many honest Central Americans will continue to come irrespective of our laws, it would be common sense to admit more legally. We should liberalize our visa policies in their native countries. For example, it is absurd to grant a visa (as we often have) to a Nicaraguan father, and deny it to his family. The father migrates to the United States, then goes to Mexico to collect his family and cross the river with them. The family lives in fear of attack by bandits and is lucky to escape them. We could at least reduce that kind of suffering.

The official interpretation of the requirement that aliens have a “well founded fear of persecution” should be broadened to admit more refugees from the Salvadoran civil war. The government could face the fact that most aliens from Central America are very difficult to deport and grant them provisional legal residence, allowing more of them to work. Various bills have come before Congress proposing “Extended Voluntary Departure” for Central Americans, meaning they might remain here indefinitely until the upheaval in their homelands subsides.10 The Bush administration has accepted this principle for students from China, and should accept and expand upon it for Central Americans. Moreover, our cities can more easily absorb legal aliens who want to work and are willing to pay taxes.

The refugees in Casa Romero also wrote to President Bush that

the plight of undocumented Central Americans in this country is the result of inadequate US policies toward Central America pursued for many years. Such policies should be changed, and that would make a world of difference. The number of immigrants would decrease, and with them the great problems you face with so many of the undocumented. Dear President Bush, we wish you could visit us and hear of our experiences of terror in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

This is the central issue. In the longterm, the tragic influx of the “undocumented” will end only when Central America becomes politically stable and economically more prosperous. That may take decades.

Meanwhile, we should change our goals. The energies of our federal forces on the border should be concentrated less on arresting impoverished Central Americans and more on the drug trade, a genuine threat to national security. Although recent reports suggest that US Army units will be placed along the border to help in interdicting drugs, such announcements have been cynically received in south Texas. 11 The army has not been trained for interdiction, and if shooting breaks out across the Rio Grande, relations with Mexico—burdened with so many bitter memories of US intervention—will be badly strained.

Agencies such as the DEA and US Customs could be improved and should be strengthened. We already have a uniformed force for fighting drugs—the US Border Patrol—and with adequate resources it might do far better. As for Mexico, despite the high intentions of its president, the corruption of the police is so deep and institutionalized that they seem for the present beyond reform. Since we cannot rely on Mexico, we must rely on ourselves.

So long as the demand for drugs continues to be intense, traffickers will flourish along the Rio Grande as they do in Florida and California. Stopping as much of the flow as possible could at least have some effect in reducing the supply of drugs thoughout the US. The police on the border would be better occupied with intercepting cocaine than with locking up refugees from Central America.

February 15, 1990

This Issue

March 15, 1990