SMUGGLERS CANYON, Calif. – This is the southwestern-most point of the continental United States. Several Mexican families swim in the Pacific Ocean on one side of the border fence, while a group of Americans walk the beach on the other side. I've come to see what our border agents face every day.
A 30-year-old fence runs east through the populated area and over several hills and valleys in the distance. The border road on the American side is basically a dirt path. On the Mexican side, though, there's a four-lane highway. The northern path is crossed by trails where dozens have come across illegally in recent months.
During my visit, a unit of the California National Guard was working with bulldozers and heavy equipment, clearing a path for a new fence to be built on the American side. Most of the action here happens after dark. Mid-day, however, we heard the car radio blast “ladder up” with a specific location. “Ladder up” means aliens are crossing.
A two-man Border Patrol unit waited at the end of a culvert. One agent was looking in. Then, 20 yards away, five unhappy aliens emerged with another Border Patrol agent following them. His usually impeccable uniform bore the marks of his crawl through the large culvert. I thanked him for his efforts. His immediate reply, which I would hear throughout the day: “Just doing my job, sir!”
These detainees will now be fingerprinted (as all illegal crossers are) with those prints run through a master list. First- or second-time offenders are simply sent back. Those caught multiple times face more elaborate procedures. They may be transported to a distant crossing point or even flown to an interior airport such as Mexico City.
Ironically, recent improvements in border security have made it possible for an upscale shopping center to be built virtually against the border fence on the American side. That's a sign of progress, as is the fact that agents are catching fewer illegals.
At one time, a Border Patrol officer says, 20 percent of all illegal crossings happened in the San Diego Sector. Yet the number of apprehensions is down significantly because fewer people try to come in here. Once the fence is erected, it should enhance border security even further.
Meanwhile, the number of agents is increasing. And the mission is a good training ground. Giving practical experience to National Guard units as backup while more agents are trained and deployed is having a positive impact at the border — and in the Guard.
Of course, not every tool is high-tech. At least two agents patrol the border on horseback here. No doubt Ronald Reagan, who loved the cavalry, would be proud that a part of the U.S. government still relies in part on horses. When the fog rolls in from the Pacific, the cameras, the lights and the SUVs take second place to the horses, whose acute senses bring agents to critical points more quickly.
There are far more legal crossings than illegal ones, of course. Some 150,000 people go daily through the San Ysidro crossing point, riding in more than 40,000 cars. We watched as one car was sent for a secondary check. Sure enough, in a false panel in the back, officers found more than 30 pounds of marijuana. At this border point last year, 140,000 pounds of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines were confiscated.
Again, I shook hands with the agent and congratulated him. The reply, of course: “Just doing my job, sir.”
That's an understatement. Along the border, dehydration is a problem in summer and sudden freak snowfalls pose challenges in winter. And weather is but one component of what the men and women along the border endure. I'm not high on many government workers, but Border Patrol officers certainly earn their pay.
Congress made a sensible decision not to go for a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year. But lawmakers should proceed, step by step, to get the job done. In the meantime, every American should take great pride in the work of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).