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Illegal Border Crossings Spike in California


Around San Diego a large contingent of National Guard troops is providing support for the border patrol. But still illegal border crossings are up. There's been an increase in border enforcement in Arizona and New Mexico, and experts say that has pushed illegal immigrants toward California.

NPR's Carrie Kahn spent some time with agents on the border and she sent this report.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

On a two-lane winding country road an hour east of San Diego, Border Patrol Agent George Towton(ph) pulls over a white SUV. It catches his eye, he says, because the vehicle is riding low, obviously hauling a heavy load.

Mr. GEORGE TOWTON (Border Patrol): I mean, I could see people moving around in the back of the vehicle. One of the windows of the vehicle has been spray painted black so that it makes it difficult for people to see in. and the vehicle's registration came back suspiciously, so.

KAHN: The load, it turns out, is 10 people. Apparently migrants who've just illegally crossed the border. Towton pulls the suspects out and orders them to put their hands on their head.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: The eight men and two women offer no resistance. They're weary. Their clothes are dirty and around each of their shoes is a thick square of ratty blanket. It's to help dust away their footprints as they walk down the dirt border roads.

They tell Towton that before they crammed into the back of the SUV, they walked two days through this rugged backcountry of San Diego County.

(Soundbite of police radio)

Unidentified Man #2: 293443, two hits. 293443, two hits.

KAHN: Off the highway, Agent Rodrigo Ferrara sits in his Border Patrol truck and monitors the radios. Agents track a group of 15 who just topped the nearby border fence. He says the past week has been pretty busy.

Mr. RODRIGO FERRARA (Border Patrol): We've been getting lots of groups actually in all zones. Usually it's always just like one zone. But now it's pretty much all the zones.

KAHN: Illegal crossings are up all along the California/Mexico border. Arrests have increased nearly 20 percent from a year ago. That spike is in contrast to the drop in numbers in Arizona, which President Bush touted earlier this month as a sign of successful enforcement.

In reality, officials say, the recent crackdowns in Arizona and New Mexico have only shifted the illegal traffic west to California. But in San Diego, Border Patrol Agent Gabriel Guerrero says those shifts are nothing to worry about.

Mr. GABRIEL GUERRERO (Border Patrol): Oh no. it goes up and it goes down. I mean, this year we are - I mean we are seeing a bit of a raise. But, you know, it's time to maybe adjust - maybe with the help of the National Guard in here, we adjust our resources, our game plan, per se, and we try to curve those numbers back down.

Unidentified Man #3: All right, shooters. Three, three and three. Be alert.

(Sound of beep)

(Sound of shooting)

KAHN: The National Guard is helping out in San Diego. Here the Guard supervises training at the Border Patrol's firing range. Sergeant Jon Hulog sys 300 Guardsmen are now in the region doing everything from maintaining the border fence to flying air surveillance.

Sergeant JON HULOG (National Guard): And we're able to free up Border Patrol agents to go back to their stations.

KAHN: But critics say it's going to take more than a few hundred National Guardsmen to gain control of the border. Silvestre Reyes is a Democratic Congressman from Texas and a former Border Patrol Chief in El Paso. He says funding for the Border Patrol historically has been too sporadic and tied to the political winds. He calls it spigot enforcement.

Representative SILVESTRE REYES (Democrat, Texas): You turn it on this year, turn it off next year. It becomes an issue, you turn it back on. And we can't operate that way.

KAHN: Reyes says the only way to keep up with the smugglers shifting tactics is to fully man the border. He says that means hiring at least 20,000 agents. Currently there are around 12,000.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: At San Diego's Campo border station, agents do what they can to keep up with the increased traffic. And on nights like this one, the traffic involves repeat offenders, like Bernardo Avila Espinoza, who's being handcuffed to a table.

Mr. BERNARDO AVILA ESPINOZA (Illegal Immigrant): (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: Espinoza admits he's been smuggling illegal immigrants across the border and this is the fifth time he's been caught, single handedly contributing to the spike in arrests agents are experiencing in San Diego.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.