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US 'drops its guard' along Mexican border due to Cuban crisis

Gene Wood's job is difficult in the best of times: keeping Mexicans from entering the United States illegally along 300 miles of Texas border that follows the twisting course of the Rio Grande River.

Now, the swell of Cuban refugees in Florida and several other factors have combined to make his a task akin to "Mission Impossible."

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As chief Border Patrol agent for the McAllen region, roughly 300 miles southwest of Houston, Mr. Wood has lost 20 percent of his officers in transfers to Florida. And in late April, fiscal restraints -- made worse by resources devoted earlier to processing and deporting Iranians -- forced the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to cut fuel allocations on the Texas border 65 percent. Also in April, INS agents nationwide were ordered by the US attorney general not to arrest illegal, or "undocumented," aliens at their places of employment for 90 days to encourage their participation in the 1980 national census.

These developments, which have greatly reduced the Border Patrol's effectiveness, are considered temporary. But they accentuate fundamental and long-term problems with immigration enforcement all along the US-Mexican border.

"Over the years, we've had peaks and valleys. We are in a deep valley now," Mr. Wood says. "And the frustration level among the men is very high."

At the same time, border officials are concerned that the US acceptance of Cuban refugees, notwithstanding the more restrictive policy recently announced by President Carter, has sent a misleading signal to some Mexicans that they, too, are welcome.

"If I were wanting to enter the US, I'd reason this is the best possible time ," said William E. Zimmer, INS deputy commissioner in Dallas for the Southern region, stretching from New Mexico to Florida.

Indeed, if officials here see a silver lining in the Cuban refugee situation it is that it will highlight the seriousness of the Mexican alien problem, which has simmered for years, in contrast to the sudden emergence of the Cuban crisis.

Some 50,000 Cubans have poured into Florida, putting tremendous pressure on local communities.

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Without diminishing the seriousness of that problem, Mr. Wood hastens to point out that along his small section of the Texas border some 60,000 undocumented Mexicans are routinely caught in a 12-month period. Twice that many, he reckons, escape apprehension.

Those who enter the United States successfully blend into the estimated 3.5 million to 6 million undocumented Mexicans who now are an accepted feature of American society.

INS agents make about 1 million apprehensions a year, most of them Mexicans. The annual immigration quota for Mexicans is 20,000, plus immediate relatives of US citizens.

Along the banks of the Rio Grande here in McAllen, the Border Patrol has been brought to a standstill by the shortage of resources. Fresh paths through the brush show heavy traffic of Mexicans entering the US.

INS agents now are relying most heavily on electronic sensor devices that register ground vibrations at popular crossover points. When one is triggered, agents converge on the spot in their four-wheel-drive jeeps. But the routine patrol of the levees that skirt the river has been suspended.

Apprehensions here in McAllen are off 60 percent. In El Paso, at the western extreme of the Texas border, they are down 40 percent.

Mexicans typically cross the border on foot and are met on the US side by friends with cars. Often, they are helped to move further north by "smugglers" who charge fees of several hundred dollars, or higher, for providing transportation and job contacts in the US interior.

The Rio Grande valley of southern Texas is bountiful agricultural country. Some of the undocumented Mexicans remain in the border region and join the huge population of resident migrant farmers. Indeed, there is a relatively free flow of Mexican laborers back and forth across the border, which many Mexicans consider an artificial boundary cutting through a region that is united by family and cultural tradition. They work the crops here in the early spring and then follow the harvest season north, fanning out into the Midwest and other regions of the US.

The resident Mexican-American migrant farmers here have mixed feelings about the undocumented workers, who cause lower wages and take jobs in the valley, where high unemployment is endemic.

"There is great division in the community" about the illegal population and whether enforcement of the immigration laws should be tougher or more lax, said Carlos Marentes, editor of the monthly newspaper of the Texas Farm Workers' Union.

The goal of that union is the organizing of all farm workers, regardless of their legal status -- unlike Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers Union in California, which has viewed undocumented workers as a threat to their efforts because they can undercut wage demands and break strikes.

Mr. Marentes sees making the organizing of the undocumented Mexicans a top priority as the only approach toward raising the standard of living in this hot border community, since undocumented workers have become such an important -- and seemingly permanent -- ingredient in the local economy.

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