SAN YSIDRO, CALIF.
UNITED States Border Patrol Agent Marco Ramirez steers his spanking new four-wheel-drive Bronco over thistle-covered desert - front lines in the battle against illegal immigration.
For decades, this austere landscape near San Diego has served as the gateway to the United States for millions of people from Mexico and 60 other nations who have entered the United States unlawfully. Agent Ramirez has fought this battle and lost - until now.
Reinforced by 200 additional Border Patrol agents, 170 factory-fresh Broncos, and an arsenal of Pentagon-style infra-red scopes and underground motion sensors, US officials are closing the back door.
Critics call it ``militarization'' of the border and ``un-American.''
But agents like Ramirez, who got along for years with worn-out, inadequate equipment, are encouraged. ``What made anybody think we could chase down illegals in street sedans on terrain like this?'' he asks.
Gustavo de la Vina, the new Western regional director of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, says optimistically: ``If you can control San Diego, where you are dealing with the heaviest level of illegal alien traffic in the Southwest, you can control any zone.''
Each year, 1 million illegal aliens - half of those entering the US - cross this 14-mile stretch of rugged canyons reaching from the Otay Mountains to the Pacific Ocean just north of Tijuana, Mexico. Tougher enforcement has decreased border traffic by an estimated 30 to 35 percent - the lowest in a decade.
Human rights groups charge that all this has come at heavy cost. They say the border crackdown was packaged and marketed in time to aid California Democrats in November elections, and they hold that the money would be better spent elsewhere.
Whatever the reasons, agent Ramirez says: ``I never thought I'd see a commitment like this. The difference between my job today and just a few years ago is night and day.''
When agent Ramirez signed on 10 years ago, chain-link fencing and three-foot-high parking-lot cable were all that separated the US from Mexico. Nearly every day, groups of 1,000 to 3,000 Mexicans would rush into the US at nightfall. Most eluded capture.
But in 1990, the US began erecting a 10-foot-high wall of welded steel that now glistens beneath miles of stadium lights. And since Oct. 1 this year, hundreds of new agents have been deployed using state-of-the-art, infrared scopes, underground motion sensors, fleets of terrain vehicles, and even marsh boats.
The name give this controversial crackdown is ``Operation Gatekeeper.'' Funded in part by the crime bill recently passed by Congress, the additional resources are a continuation of a steady buildup that actually began about four years ago. Some $236 million is allocated for 1995, an increase of 25 percent over this year.
By February, this sector will be manned by 1,100 agents. More helicopters are on the way. And 100,000 infrared, telezoom night scopes can help one man monitor a five-mile radius at night. ``I can tell the difference between a male and female at three miles,'' says one agent, perched on a ridge where he manipulates the powerful camera.
If the San Diego border has for decades been a metaphor for the nation's indifference to illegal immigration, the new buildup has become a symbol for sudden nationwide concern. America is watching, in part, because of the passage here of Proposition 187, the Nov. 8 ballot-measure denying public services to illegal immigrants.
Responding to widespread anxiety over jobs, crime, and shrinking government revenues, several states are poised to offer similar citizen initiatives.
Attorney General Janet Reno, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, and Mr. De La Vina reported Dec. 12 on the successes of ``Gatekeeper'' after two months of operation. Last month, 16,252 people were apprehended for illegal entry, a drop of 30 percent over October 1993.
But others say the figures need to be put in perspective. ``We are seeing a concomitant rise in numbers coming in through Arizona and New Mexico,'' says Rosemary Jencks, analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.
Officials here argue that pushing illegal entries out of San Diego to smaller towns is a step in the right direction.
``Here an illegal is seconds away from public transportation that can have him hundreds of miles north in a matter of hours,'' says INS spokesman Bryant Brasley. ``To the east, they may be surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert where we can track them down.''
Other groups question government priorities.
``It's amazing to me that there is money available for lights, agents, and new technology in a highly politicized election year,'' says Bobbi Murray, chief spokeswoman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). ``But when it comes to looking at the issue of processing legal immigrants and deciding who gets to be a citizen, the machinery moves at a glacial pace.''