At the Border: Budget Cuts Make Gate-Crashing Easier
SAN YSIDRO, Calif. (AP) _ Some aliens hide in the trunks of cars to enter the United States illegally. Others buy counterfeit U.S. birth certificates or green cards in Tijuana and try to bluff their away across the border. One recently tried to crash through the crossing on a bicycle.
He wound up in custody, his old black coaster bike stowed in the room where Immigration and Naturalization Service investigators interrogate suspects.
But the odds are the U.S. government won’t prosecute the gate-crasher. And those odds have gotten even longer in recent months due to belt-tightening forced by the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law, INS officials say.
Ed Kelliher, the INS director here at the world’s busiest border crossing, says his ranks of 54 inspectors are stretched so thin they can prepare prosecution cases against only a tiny fraction of the thousands of smugglers, counterfeiters and others who try to bluff or connive their way into the United States each year.
But while the Justice Department’s INS labored until recently under a hiring freeze, the U.S. Customs Service is on a hiring spree.
Customs shares the inspection chores with the INS. Customs worries about illegal merchandise, the INS about illegal immigrants, but inspectors from each agency keep a lookout for both.
Customs, part of the Treasury Department, already has a larger complement of inspectors here and is hiring dozens more to combat what Customs officials say is an upsurge in drug trafficking from Mexico.
Allan Rappoport, Customs director in San Diego, who expects to expand his staff by 25 percent, said, ″We’re afraid to talk too much about it for fear that we’ll wake up and it will all be a dream.″
The Border Patrol, part of the INS, also has been beefed up to intercept more of the aliens who clamber by the thousands each day across the dusty hills and desert that separate the United States and Mexico.
Why would one agency guarding the entryways to America be squeezed while another grows heftier?
Kelliher suspects it is because the job of enforcing the immigration laws ″just doesn’t have the romance, the luster, the glamor of narcotics.″
″What’s more romantic: a great, big load of heroin, or two Mexicans in the trunk of a car?″ he asked as he sat in an office overlooking the lines of traffic snaking back to Tijuana.
Ten of the 24 inspection lanes were open, and cars were waiting 30 to 45 minutes to head north this morning. Eighteen gates had been open at the height of the morning rush.
In early March, the staffing disparities boiled over into a standoff between the agencies that triggered traffic delays as long as three hours. Both agencies had cut back on inspectors, leaving as few as eight gates open at rush hour.
Local Customs officials reportedly pulled back their people because they were staffing up to 75 percent of the gates instead of the customary 50 percent.
That happened after Kelliher got orders to cut his overtime budget 15 to 25 percent. He says the only way he can match Customs on the lines with a smaller staff is through massive amounts of overtime.
The tie-ups sent merchants’ sales plummeting on both sides of the border, and pressure quickly mounted on both agencies to settle the skirmish. The INS regional office restored Kelliher’s overtime by dipping into the budgets of other West Coast ports.
Peace, parity and more tolerable waits were restored to this border crossing, 15 miles south of San Diego, where 38 million people drive or walk past the psychedelic Peter Max ″Welcome to the United States″ sign each year.
Many workers commute across the border daily. American tourists flock to Tijuana to buy leather, pottery and tequila. Mexicans work the fields in Imperial Valley and bring home milk, poultry and other goods from the United States.
The INS turns back more than 100,000 aliens a year at the San Ysidro crossing because of fake or inadequate documents. They refused admission in May to 9,800, including 4,000 suspected of fraud. They confiscated 102 cars from alien smugglers - and one bicycle.
But they only prepared 16 cases for prosecution, down from a high of 63 in January. Kelliher says he scaled back his criminal investigations unit to keep the traffic flowing.
The INS inspectors routinely work six days a week and often pull 12-to-14 hour days. Some nearly double their $25,000 base salaries.
That helps cover the steep cost of living in San Diego, but ″it makes for a lousy family life,″ said K.C. Appel, an INS supervisor.
Before Gramm-Rudman, the INS had planned to hire up to 15 more inspectors for San Ysidro in 1986. It once had upwards of 100 inspectors here. A new border crossing opened in 1985 at Otay Mesa, five miles to the east, but traffic at San Ysidro remains near record levels.
Kelliher, son of a border patrolman, said, ″In the same commuter traffic you get your dope smugglers, you get the alien smugglers, you get the people with counterfeit documents. You can’t just open up the gates and let them in.″
″Out of 38 million people that go through here, there’s some bad apples,″ he said.