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Mexico's Economy, Illegal Immigrants Cause Tighter Control of U.S. Border

By William Branigin
The Washington Post
SAN DIEGO

Under cover of darkness, a steady drizzle and a patchy fog, Manuel Parra-Sierra and 11 other Mexicans scaled the eight-foot-high fence and bolted into the muddy salt flats of Border Field State Park.

Their destination: Imperial Beach, a community two miles away that illegal Mexican immigrants have long used as a staging point en route to other places in California and across the United States.

But this was not their lucky night. Almost immediately, the group was detected by seismic sensors, then tracked from a hilltop more than a mile away by a Border Patrol agent operating a Loris infrared night-vision scope. By radio, the officer directed colleagues in Ford Broncos to the scene about three-quarters of a mile north of the border. The illegal crossers were then quickly surrounded by agents shouting "halt" in Spanish.

"It's the economic situation we're living through," said Parra-Sierra, 33, explaining why he left his wife and two children at home in Yucatan state, where he earned less than $34 a week as an electrician, to seek work in the United States.

The group was part of a wave of illegal border crossers driven by Mexico's worst economic recession in 60 years, which is being met by U.S. effort to tighten control of the border. Launched Jan. 16, the program reinforces Southern California and Arizona with 300 Border Patrol and immigration officers supported by police, National Guard and military personnel. The move serves to bolster President Clinton's claims of getting the border under control and ending the "neglect" of previous administrations that had made the San Diego area a freeway for illegal immigration.

The effort also carries high stakes politically in this election year, a crucial constituency in which illegal immigration is a key issue. At the same time, it has provoked expressions of alarm and condemnation from officials in Mexico, who accuse the United States of "militarizing" the border.

An existing campaign already has made crossing here more difficult. Notably, it has driven up the costs that smugglers charge to guide illegal aliens through the human, physical and technological barriers that have changed the face of the border in the last couple of years.