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An Immigrant Underground

In San Diego, the storm drain system is being used to smuggle illegal crossers, confronting the Border Patrol with a unique challenge.

By Richard Marosi, Times Staff Writer

May 25, 2006

SAN DIEGO — Armando Reyes climbed over the border fence and prepared for the dash into San Diego. But his smuggler instead led him and four other migrants through a patch of reeds to a stinky drainage pipe, and ordered them inside.

The black sludge reached Reyes' chin as he crawled through the shoulder-width tube. Rats scurried by. Terrified of losing his way in the darkness, Reyes reached for the illegal immigrant in front of him and clutched his sneaker.

The stocky 28-year-old from Oaxaca had followed the smuggler into a vast labyrinth of drainage pipes under Otay Mesa, a booming commercial area of San Diego 15 miles southeast of downtown.

The 23-mile network leads to about 500 manholes scattered across about three square miles. From those openings into the bowels of the city, mud-covered migrants crawl out into streets, busy intersections and parking lots, creating a dizzying guessing game for U.S. Border Patrol agents.

"They're popping up all over the place," said Joe Perez, the agent in charge of the area.

The migrant traffic below truck-clogged streets and new office parks underscores the persistence and desperation of people faced with crossing one of the most heavily fortified sections of the border.

Illegal crossings will soon get even tougher. President Bush is sending 6,000 National Guard troops to the border, Congress is mulling its own enforcement plans and starting next month this busy frontier across from Tijuana will be monitored by remote surveillance cameras.

So the underground beckons.

The tunnels channel rainwater out of flood-prone areas, but when the waters aren't running, the waves of migrants flow, a phenomenon that has bedeviled agents for years and has gotten worse recently as aboveground routes have become more heavily patrolled.

The cat-and-mouse game took an ironic turn last month when migrants even surfaced outside the offices of the U.S. Border Tunnel Task Force. Those manhole covers — one in a secured parking lot — were welded shut after that, one of them also topped with three 35-pound bags of rocks and gravel.

But six more manholes, all potential escape hatches, lie within a block of the federal facility.

"They're all interlinked, so you never know where they'll come up," said David Badger, a Border Patrol supervisor.

Other border cities have wrestled with similar situations, most notably Nogales, Ariz., which is linked underground to Nogales, Mexico, by two large storm-drain tunnels patrolled regularly by heavily armed agents.

Unlike Nogales, the drainage system under Otay Mesa doesn't extend into Mexico. But most of the tunnel outlets are just a quick run from the border. Illegal immigrants typically traverse the pipes, many of which are 2 to 3 feet in diameter, at night, sometimes crawling for hours. Vehicles waiting on deserted streets then whisk them to stash houses.

Border Patrol agents have arrested hundreds of migrants exiting storm drains in the last year but don't know how many get through. Some estimate that thousands make it.

Last year, a Caltrans worker said he saw 200 migrants climb out of a manhole in the middle of an interchange on State Highway 905. Last month, 17 people were captured after they climbed out of a manhole near the Drug Enforcement Administration building that houses the tunnel task force. And earlier this month, 15 people were arrested outside a warehouse just north of the border after an agent heard the scraping sound of a manhole cover being slid open.

The problem has grown serious enough that agents are teaming with San Diego city engineers to create a computer map of the system. Research is also underway to find a way to attach sensors to manhole covers to alert agents when they are opened. Crews have welded shut about a dozen manhole covers known to be active migrant funnels.

At the tunnel task force, the federal multi-agency group credited with the discovery in January of the longest illegal border tunnel ever found, a top official said the storm drains present a unique problem.

"It's not like when you have … a drug tunnel. We can't go in there and just fill them up with cement," said Michael Unzueta, the special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The federal task force focuses on unearthing drug tunnels built by organized-crime groups. Policing the city's storm drain system is the responsibility of the Border Patrol.

Migrant smugglers possess extensive knowledge of the storm drain system, agents say. The smugglers are typically young men from Tijuana, sometimes teenagers, who wear black jumpsuits and kneepads and mark their subterranean routes with construction tape or paint. The smugglers have been known to ferry drugs through the tubes, but most of the smuggling appears to involve people.

They often deceive the migrants, telling them the underground trips will take only minutes. Those who fall behind are often berated and ordered to hurry up. Some have even gotten stuck inside.

Illegal immigrants, who pay from $1,500 to $3,000, often don't know they are going underground until smugglers give them Styrofoam kneepads and tell them to get into the pipes.

Reyes, who was headed for Los Angeles, said his smuggler told him the crawl would take just five minutes, but half an hour later he was still inching along. It was cold and so dark, he said, that he couldn't see his hand in front of his face.

"I didn't want to get lost…. I just wanted to get out of there," he said.

When he finally surfaced, agents, who had been watching the manhole in a warehouse district a quarter-mile north of the border, pounced and arrested him and 10 other people. At the processing center in Chula Vista, agents hosed off the migrants, who were covered in muck from head to toe.

"It's frightening…. My nerves are shot," said Reyes, shivering in his wet clothing. "I'll never go down there again."

The pitch-black passages are harrowing even for veteran city workers.

"It's kind of scary," said Aaron Snelling, a drain supervisor with the city of San Diego. "It takes a while to get used to. You get down there, get your work done and get out."

Smugglers think of crafty ways to clean the migrants quickly. A getaway truck found last year when agents busted 52 people near a manhole was equipped with a hose, showerhead and water tank so the migrants could wash off.

Tips about active manholes come from startled motorists, Caltrans work crews and security guards; otherwise, most cases require patient detective work and a good eye for subtle details.

Agents pinpoint active manholes by looking for muddy footprints. The 90-pound covers sometimes leave scrape marks on sidewalks or are left slightly ajar. And discarded clothing is usually a sign of activity because migrants frequently change after leaving the tunnels.

Looking down into one manhole on the edge of a field where pants and shirts had been found, Perez could only guess what had transpired the previous night.

"It's the unknown. We have no idea what came through here," he said, adding, "I wouldn't be surprised if they ran 75 to 80 bodies through."

The Border Patrol has yet to find a sure-fire method of keeping smugglers and migrants out of the drainage tunnels. Many agents don't enter the pipes for safety reasons: Dangerous chemicals can flow in the runoff waters. Sealing all of the manholes is not an option because city workers need access to maintain the system.

Agents have installed heavy grates over the 11 openings near the rusty border fence, but smugglers regularly cut through the bars with blowtorches and saws. There have also been several attempts by smugglers to build tunnels that link to the drainage system.

Perez, who has spent decades in the area, remembers when migrants streamed into California here across open farmland.

The landscape has changed dramatically: Double fencing and stadium lighting line the border; warehouses and office parks have grown up on the vacant land.

And the migrants keep coming.

"They don't have to cross fields," Perez said. "They went underground."

Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.

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Guest keninla

I just finished reading Thomas Sowell's column in todays paper. He is absolutely right when he says that there is no compelling reason why border security and dealing with the current illegals in the country has to be part of the same package. They are two separate issues and the only reason that they are linked into one bill is so that the politicians can claim to be on both sides of the issue.

Makes me so mad I could spit when I see that the illegals may be rewarded for their ILLEGAL actions.

I cannot fathom the argument that the illegals have been working hard and doing good things while they were here illegally. To me it is the same argument that it would be OK to rob a bank if you did something good with it like give it to the Rescue Mission.

We have to keep up the pressure so that the House of Reps does not back down and accept the Senate version of the bill.


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Well today I met one of our soon to be new countrymen in the back of my truck

my dog was barking so i looked outside 8am this morning opened my front door

and yelled Hey Buddy stopped him dead.Then he says mister your wife said I could

have these empty pails.I said thats funny I don't have a wife.Went inside to call the police he took off on his bike I got dressed he was gone so i went for a ride in the neighborhood 3 streets over there is is in somebodys garage browsing.See

me takes off down alley on his bike with me right behind him.He going pretty fast for a bike.But not a fast as a Toyota Landcruiser till i saw the dumpster blocking tha alley lost him.Back to the street around the block couldn't find him found a police offices cruising by stopped said i was the one who called we looked but he was gone.The police told me that thay use the alleys push the dumpsters into the middle just to block there escapes.maybe next time well meet again.

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Cheap Labor

This comes from a guy whose father retired from the United States Air

Force Academy and is very passionate about our country Needless to say he

was very vocal about the immigration rallies last week.

In his own words...

Definitely something to think about........................

"The phrase "cheap labor" is a myth, a farce, and a lie. There is no such

thing as "cheap labor." Take, for example, an illegal Mexican who sneaks

in here with his wife and five children.

He takes a job for five or six dollars an hour. At that wage with six

dependents he pays no income tax, yet at the end of the year gets an

"earned income credit" of up to $3,200 free.

He qualifies for Section 8 housing and subsidized rent, food stamps, and

free (no deductible, no co-pay) health care.

His children get free breakfasts and lunches at school, and require

bi-lingual teachers and books that taxpayer provide. He doesn't have to

worry about car insurance, life insurance, or homeowners insurance.

Taxpayers provide Spanish language signs, bulletins, and printed material.

He cannot be fired, harassed, or sued. He and his family receive the

equivalent of $20 to $30 an hour in benefits, while working Americans are

lucky to have $5 or $6 an hour left after paying their bills and his, and

paying for increased crime, graffiti, and trash cleanup.

Cheap labor? My ass


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I used to live in Imperial Beach,Calif. ...this is THE most SouthWest town in the U.S. and we(TheLegal U.S. Citizens)would constantly see I.A.'s (illegal aliens)running through all of the streets...on the U.S. side.

ANYTIME ANYONE wants to see ANY I.A.'s in the U.S. all ya gotta do is ride in any high profile vehicle(such as a 4x4,bus,train,plane,crane,horse&buggy,18 wheeler) and look down into the vehicles traveling North on the highways..................................PACKED LIKE joke.


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I don't think I will fly my American flag this year on July 4th. It is supposed to stand for independance and soverienity one nation under GOD and indivisible. Our government has given our country to Mexico. Even worse, it lets the mexican el presedente parade around and have a hand in our goverments making of laws and policy making. How far do you think good old GWB would get in Mexico wandering around telling the mexicans what to do in their own country. Really makes me mad. It is almost as if our congress , senate and especially our president are out to destroy this great nation of ours. All of this cost that we are giving to the illegals will come off the backs of the poor in america and the disabled war veterans of america. My wife is very ill and we are very poor and we get no help from the good old government but if I was a damned illegal they would give me and my wife the best health care there is . Yes I am pissed actually pissed is not the correct wording. Outraged is the correct terminalogy. We need to take america back fro the carpet bagin politicians. I have no use for any of them. If you read this and you are in my country illegally and this offends you good, go back home.

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I don't think its so much the fault of the illegal alien as it is the fault of the American Contractor, as they are the ones hiring and using lower labor rates to undercut everyone else. It's a real easy thing to lower wages, and a tough haul to raise them.

Back when everything was more or less even keel, wages were decent living wages, and work was mostly unionized, there were those who hired a few guys who crossed, in order to have some edge in bidding out work. I think it is now the mainstream 'walmart' mentality to constantly ask for more production at the same or lower price, both is product costs and in labor.

As the oil spilled into the labor stream, the pond was healthy enough to absorb and neutralize the pollution. Past that point now, it is a quagmire of sludge, as no American wants to work for the very wage decreases they once engineered in order to gain advantage. And, many Mexicans have since started their own companies and labor associations, and readily bid against what American contractors are left.

We see the results of toyota, honda, almost all of the chainsaw and yard tool makers (offshore manufacturing), and just about everything else that was once American, Made by an American, now sold out and sent packing to someplace where slave labor and slave wages form a common denominator. Unfortunately for the US Economy, if everything were to freeze and stop, the mud we are stuck in up to our hips will dry out and we will be stuck as well, as no one can or would afford to pay for something that cost more to make, as most no one has a job earning the wages it would take to pay the necessary bills and splurge for extras.

Lest you think that this is just a Mexican ordeal, the vast majority of doctors in the country are Pakistanis or from the Middle East. Civil and other engineers are from India and that region. Assembly personnel in what manufacturing plant left is either from Central and South America, India, Israel, Europe, and a good portion of the shirts on our backs don't come from anyplace most of us have ever visited.

The whole mess is a quagmire muck created by whom? The US Americans or the outsiders? You got it, our own greedy patriot brothers, born and raised here. And nobody can afford a house in California (actually just about anywhere nowadays) unless they make big bucks, and to make money like that, profits have to rise and wholesale prices have to go lower.

So, are you ready to pick vegetables and fruit, hang drywall for piecework prices of the 1980's, frame and build houses that someone can afford for piecework wages and hours, throw out the 8 hour day and 40 hour week, more....? Your porduction has to be economical enough that some other dude can buy it, for without sales, there can be no job to make it? Yeah baby, everyone has a right to work for less money and benefits- the creed of a right to work state. Doesn't matter what color your skin is or what language you speak, and the cure...well it may not be what people think it is. just my opinion.

I am not siding with anybody. no matter what, it means tough times ahead, and ugly mobs

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Well said as usual Whats4supper.

Despite being experienced out in the business world,

I still am amazed that there is so little conscience among the corporate and

political heads of this country.

It has taken me time to come to understand that we all need to educate ourselves and discuss the tough issues before us, allowing different points of view through

so we can learn enough, and then, most importantly,

act on it,

or we are not going to survive as a country.

Letting the status quo remain in place is a guarentee of failure.

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By the way,

in the interest of self-education, has anyone taken a look at this government site?

It's a jaw-dropper, and completely unreported in the press as far as I know...

the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP)


for more explaination...


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