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America Puts Up Chain-Links Along a Once-Friendly Border

LL along the US side of the Mexican border and into America's heartland, the mood toward illegal aliens has turned distinctly chilly.

Politicians from Pete Wilson to Pat Buchanan to Bill Clinton have picked up on the shift in public opinion. They are offering tough measures to protect American jobs and businesses.

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Rarely before has the 2,000-mile border been so vigorously defended. Steel fences run through deserts and up over hillsides. United States Border Patrol agents are equipped with high-tech surveillance devices.

On both sides of the border, tensions are growing over NAFTA, water, schools, drugs, and other bilateral issues.

Yet the new, tougher American mood clashes with official US goals of free trade, Mexican development, and greater harmony between two neighbors starkly different in wealth and outlook.

In an eight-part series starting today (Page 9), the Monitor explores how the new border tensions affect life for residents on both sides, and why US-Mexican relations are now on the borderline of a new and chilly era.

WHERE the Pacific Ocean meets the border between the United States and Mexico, a plaque mounted on a chiseled rock dedicates the surrounding seaside park ''to the friendship'' of the American and Mexican people.

The Border Field Park was opened in 1974 for the enjoyment of people from two neighboring countries. Today, it is divided by a high fence designed to keep the people and contraband of the south from coming north.

''This used to be a nice place where people from here and over there could actually get together,'' says a US Border Patrol agent, standing vigil on a recent foggy morning over the traditionally busy San Diego section of the border. ''Then all the illegal aliens and the drug runners ruined it.''

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The San Diego fence, along with others like it in El Paso, Texas; Nogales, Ariz.; and elsewhere, symbolizes the widening and hardening of a 2,000-mile-long border that until recently was thought by many local residents and border specialists to be fading as a divide.

Examples of cooperation between the two sides were growing, from city halls and private environmental and economic development organizations, to board rooms and family-run businesses. Life magazine hailed the area in 1969 as an unguarded border where the best of both cultures mixed. By 1985, however, the National Geographic called it ''the eroding border.''

The promise of Mexico's strengthening economic ties, encouraged by the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), only bolstered a sense of optimism and excitement about the border region in the late 1980s and early '90s.

That was before immigration became a more potent political issue in the US than at any time since the 1920s, before Mexico became the No. 1 entry point for illegal drugs into the US, and before middle-class malaise in the US coupled with Mexico's economic crash in 1995 convinced a growing number of Americans that the border was going to be more a problem than an opportunity for some time.

Reflecting that thinking, the border is a controversial issue in this year's presidential campaign. Republican candidate Pat Buchanan has set the tone, blasting Mexico as a socialist sinkhole into which the US should pour no more money, and calling for both cancellation of NAFTA and construction of a border wall.

He said in a New Hampshire fund-raiser in January, ''I believe there's a direct correlation between the declining standard of living of American workers and these unfair trade deals we've been negotiating with China, Japan, and Mexico.''

President Clinton, feeling vulnerable over his support of NAFTA and the $50 billion Mexico bailout he orchestrated last year, is moving to look tough on Mexico as well. Last month, the administration announced that as part of the continuing battle against illegal immigration, use of the military along the border would increase.

Now the border is an increasingly guarded - some say militarized - divide. Even as the border population explodes, economic interests of the two sides become more intertwined, and management of scarce resources like water becomes more complex, the common everyday contacts that make possible cooperation and a sense of community become more problematic.

More than 4,000 Border Patrol agents, up 50 percent from 1993, watch over the US-Mexico border, assisted in some sectors by National Guardsmen and Army personnel. Just last week, Attorney General Janet Reno announced that 1,000 more agents will be stationed on the Southwest border this year.

Border Patrol statistics and casual discussions with Mexicans waiting in Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez to cross indicate that getting across the border illegally is more difficult than just a year ago. ''I've just lost another day's work because I can't get across with all the migra [Border Patrol agents] along here,'' says Teresa Ramirez Gomez, a Juarez resident who for seven years has illegally entered the US to reach her house-cleaning job in El Paso.

Border crossing for legal workers has also gotten more difficult. US Customs officers are trying to crack down on narcotics flow and an increase in use of false immigration documents.

''I used to go over to Juarez for lunch at least once a week to keep up business contacts, but I simply can't afford the long wait in line to come back here,'' says Donald Michie, president of NAFTA Ventures, an El Paso joint-venture development company. ''A community that had a tight socioeconomic fabric built over decades is being destroyed by politics from inside the beltway,'' he adds.

Washington - and on the Mexican side, Mexico City - have long been accused of imposing unpopular policies and impediments to exchange on the border. But ironically as the border becomes a more populous region, federal policies that make the border a firmer divide gain favor.

For some border residents on the American side, the drop in crimes ranging from trespassing to car theft and burglary that accompanied the construction of solid-steel fences and stepped-up border surveillance was worth the stiffer measures.

''We do not have one community here. We have the United States and we have Mexico, and they are two different types of economies and countries,'' says Sylvestre Reyes, former chief of the El Paso Border Patrol sector and now a candidate for Congress. ''We need to enforce the border and promote lawfulness if we want to make business between the two sides possible.''

Yet others view the border as an integral region that will sink or swim based on the ability of two halves to cooperate.

''At the same time that the US government says to Mexico, 'We are your partner,' it is taking actions that say, 'We fear you, distrust you, and reject you,' '' says Rick Ufford-Chase, director of a Tucson, Ariz., church-affiliated program called Borderlinks that introduces Americans ranging from seminarians to business owners to the US-Mexico border.

Since coming to the Arizona border region in 1987, Mr. Ufford-Chase says he's seen worrying changes. ''It's a far more violent place than before; the effect of the [border] walls, and now of the Mexican economy, is that you have much more desperate people,'' he says. ''The drug trade is much more significant than just a few years ago, and law enforcement along the border is more heavily armed to respond.''

Still, the Presbyterian seminary dropout says he tells Borderlinks participants that the border is a good place to try to understand free trade and some of the consequences of the globalization of the American economy.

''People, especially in the middle class, are uneasy about the changes and fearful of losing everything they've got to some nebulous and distant low-wage earner,'' he says. ''But the Mexicans are among us, and the border is here, so they become the focus of that anxiety.''

US officials acknowledge that the US-Mexico border is the focus of more attention from Washington than at almost any time in the past. US policy, says recently named ''border czar'' Alan Bersin, is set on a dual track of ''interdiction and facilitation'' - interdiction of the illegal activities that have plagued the border for decades, along with facilitation of the legal crossings and commerce that benefit both sides.

''We have had a lawless border for the most part, but that could not continue if we wanted to take advantage of the economic opportunities that working with our neighbors offers,'' says Mr. Bersin, US attorney for the Southern District of California. Named by Attorney General Janet Reno in October as her special representative for southwest border issues, Bersin adds, ''A lawful border is key to making this a border facilitating commerce.''

Taking control of the border, he adds, is also one of the best ways to head off the frustration behind an initiative like California's anti-immigration Proposition 187, which sought to curtail illegal immigration by denying undocumented residents education and health benefits.

Prop. 187 or proposals for major additional wall-building along the border ''are not the kinds of answers we [in the Clinton administration] support,'' Bersin says. ''We have to realize that the border is caught up in something that is worldwide,'' the growing movement of people and goods to promising markets, ''and only a long-view approach that is adamant on lawfulness while facilitating legitimate interchange can respond to that.''

From the Mexican side of the border, however, the US looks less interested in encouraging interchange with Mexico than set on turning Mexico and the border into a scapegoat. When the lines for crossing from Juarez to El Paso back up to an hour's wait or more, Ismael Orozco, Mexico's deputy consul in El Paso, Texas, wonders ''what the US thinks that says to us. It says, 'We think you are all criminals, or drug dealers, or undesirable in some other way.' The only other border I know of like that is between Israel and the Arabs in the West Bank.''

That view is echoed by Jorge Bustamante, president of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, in Tijuana, who emphasizes the ''paradox'' of what continues to be ''the most intensely crossed border in the world'' even as the US ''seems set on making out Mexico and Mexicans to be the new social enemy.''

''Ross Perot speaks of undocumented aliens like an illness from abroad, [California Gov.] Pete Wilson plays on Americans' worst tendencies, racism, and isolationism with Prop. 187, and [San Diego Rep.] Duncan Hunter wants to deploy the military on the border and build more walls,'' he says. ''With the end of the cold war, Mexico has taken over from the Soviet Union the role of dangerous enemy of the US.''

With a heated American election campaign expected this year, many observers say ''Mexico-bashing'' will only get worse. Immigration and drugs, along with NAFTA and free trade, will be important campaign issues. All of them invite a negative emphasis on relations with Mexico and the nation's southern border.

''Right now the situation looks pretty grim,'' says Peter Ward, director of the Mexican Center at the University of Texas at Austin. ''I don't see relations between the two countries or perceptions about the border turning more positive at least until after the elections.''

Local contacts

In that context, some local residents say they count on continuing and deepening contacts at the local level to keep cooperation and exchanges going.

''The big picture along the border doesn't suggest a very encouraging trend, but there are an awful lot of local projects bringing officials and people of all kinds and from both sides together to keep the doors open,'' says Helen Ingram, director of the Udall Center for Public Policy at the University of Arizona in Tucson. ''That's what gives me hope.''

One such program is the San Diego Project at the University of California at San Diego, which encourages a city that long ignored Mexico to develop stronger contacts with its southern neighbor. Another is Hands Across the Border, which helps low-income women from El Paso and Juarez to work together on income-boosting projects. The International Sonoran Desert Alliance links residents from southern Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora to promote desert preservation and sustainable tourism. The Border Environment Cooperation Commission, set up under NAFTA, encourages binational cooperation on border environmental issues.

Will such efforts be enough to hold off an opposing trend toward a widening, less friendly border?

Challenges for the future

Some observers, like Ellwyn Stoddard, a border scholar at the University of Texas at El Paso, say the border region has always figured out how to overcome adversity or impositions from outside to maintain the local ties that keep the region a community.

The challenge for the border region will be to address the growing and increasingly complex problems it faces.

''The border is in the middle of an important transition, just as Mexico is in transition and attitudes [in the US] are being reshaped,'' says border czar Bersin. ''That suggests a period of fears and danger, but the change should also be seen for the border as a period of opportunity.''

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