Opinions Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

President Bush wants to send thousands of National Guard personnel to the Mexican border. NPR's John Burnett wanders along a wild section of the border and talks with local law enforcement officers, Border Patrol agents, and Mexicans about the president's plan.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Last week in Washington, D.C., the President and the Senate prescribed a host of solutions to the nation's leaky southern border with Mexico. Among them, reinforcements of 6,000 National Guard troops and miles of fencing and vehicle barriers. Members of Congress weighed in on those proposals today. Here is Republican Congressman Charlie Norwood of Georgia speaking on NBC's Meet the Press.

Representative CHARLIE NORWOOD (Republican, Georgia): I know for sure in my district they want this border secured. Now the President took the first right step of the day with the National Guard. Unfortunately, that's not near enough. We are going to have to add about 30,000 to it to actually shut the border down.

ELLIOTT: On the border, in West Texas, NPR's John Burnett reports they take a more jaundiced view of what will and won't work.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Last January, there was an international incident down here at a quiet bend in the Rio Grande fringed with salt cedar about 50 miles down the river from El Paso. Sheriff's deputies drove up on a popular drug trafficking spot called Meles(ph) Crossing and witnessed what they say was a Mexican Army Humvee protecting a drug shipment crossing the river back into Mexico.

Men dressed as soldiers pointed assault rifles at a Texas lawmen until the load was across. No one was hurt, but the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Department realized how outgunned it was. So when Sergeant Robert Wilson hears that the President wants to send National Guard troops to the border to back up the Border Patrol, he says us too.

Sergeant ROBERT WILSON (Hudspeth County, Texas): It might be nice to have an American Humvee show up, a National Guard Humvee, with a guy up there with a 50-caliber show up behind us, that would be nice. It might make a difference.

BURNETT: Or maybe a big fence would help. This week the Senate put a provision in its immigration bill that calls for 370 miles of triple layer fencing. But Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West is dubious.

Sheriff ARVIN WEST (Hudspeth County, Texas): Defense in metropolitan areas may be affected. I guarantee you build a fence in Meles Crossing in Hudspeth County, Texas, if you don't have the manpower sitting there watching that fence, within a matter of days it's going to be in somebody's chicken pen in Mexico or horse pen or part of their house in Mexico. You can build it out of whatever kind of material you want to. They'll tear it down and it will be gone.

BURNETT: The plan proposed by President Bush is to bring down 6,000 National Guard troops to supplement the Border Patrol while that agency hires 6,000 more agents over the next few years.

The Border Patrol has already doubled in size in the past decade, and it's still not enough. There seems to be a great national impatience over the government's inability to control the international divide. And the chief agents are under enormous pressure to seal it up.

Robert Gilbert is responsible for the El Paso sector.

Mr. ROBERT GILBERT (Border Patrol): The border has been neglected for decades. It's not going to be resolved overnight. It takes time to hire a quality person. It takes time to get that person up to being 100 percent efficient in the field. We're getting the agents, we're getting the technology. We're getting the tactical infrastructure. Those are the key components to border success. But it's going to take some time for us to get up to speed.

BURNETT: But even when the border patrol gets up to speed, will that along be effective? Jim Stack is a 17 year veteran agent who's position as president of the local El Paso border patrol union allows him to speak candidly. He says what other agents say off the record. A new border strategy must include penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants, which the President's speech mentioned only in passing. Stack stands outside the Alamogordo, New Mexico checkpoint in a blustery desert wind.

Mr. JIM STACK (President, El Paso Border Patrol Union): The strategy that the border patrol uses along the border is the failed strategy, and that is deterrents. And you could have agents holding hands from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas, but still people are going to get in. Securing the border goes hand in hand with employer sanctions. They have to be done simultaneously.

BURNETT: Public officials on the border are following the national immigration debate with great interest because they live it. Three hundred and twenty-six years ago Spanish friars established missions on the Rio Grande near where Presidio, Texas now stands. It's a remote village surrounded by stunning volcanic mountains. The mayor of Presidio is a high school history teacher named Alcee Tavarez. He's a fourth generation Presidian. His great-grandfather immigrated from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. Tavarez supports border control and opposes amnesty. He says recent immigrants are not as interested in assimilating as earlier generations were.

Mayor ALCEE TAVAREZ (Presidio, Texas): I teach students at the high school that have gone through the system, and sometimes yet refuse to speak English because they're afraid they're going to forget their culture. I mean I've been accused of being a racist because you don't want to speak Spanish or you don't want to do this or you don't acknowledge the fact that you're from Mexico. Well, number one I'm not a Mexican citizen. I'm an American citizen.

BURNETT: And what say the U.S.-bound Mexican immigrants, the silent targets of the plan to build up the most high tech border in the world? Twenty-three-year-old Jorge from Charetero(ph) stops on a Juarez side street on his way to the river, which he plans to cross and then make his way to Atlanta. Yes, he's heard this talk from Washington about controlling the border.

JORGE (Mexican National): (Through translator): The gringo is intelligent concerning these types of projects, but the Mexican is intelligent in figuring out where to cross. The can put up iron walls and Mexicans will never be stopped. That's where we work. When we Mexicans say we're going ahead, there's nothing that can stop us. No one or no wall can prevent it.

BURNETT: The U.S. government responds, We'll see about that. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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