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El Paso is caught up in border crackdown

Michael Chertoff defended US border agents. Michael Chertoff defended US border agents.

EL PASO -- Leaders of this sunny desert city peppered Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff during a recent visit with complaints about trade-crimping border-crossing delays, unwanted calls to enlist local police in enforcing immigration laws, and recent deaths of immigrants at the hands of US Border Patrol agents.

"Second-guessers and hindsighters," Chertoff retorted, defending such agents against critics who he said "have no idea how difficult it is here at the border."

But to many in El Paso, it is Washington's understanding of what it means to be on the border that is increasingly in question. As the political stalemate continues on how to revamp immigration laws, the Bush administration has taken aggressive new measures to tighten border security and deal more harshly with illegal immigrants.

And that has El Paso, just a stone's throw across the Rio Grande from the Mexican boomtown of Ciudad Juarez, feeling even more caught in the middle. "Most people in Washington really don't understand life on the border," said Mayor John Cook of El Paso. "They don't understand our philosophy here that the border joins us together; it doesn't separate us."

Yesterday, Cook and the mayor of Juarez led a protest against a planned border wall to stem illegal immigration into America.

The protesters held hands across the Paso del Norte Bridge, which spans the Rio Grande and connects the downtown cores of the two cities.

Although many residents here are as staunchly opposed to illegal immigration as those elsewhere in the country, El Paso's deep ties to its sister city across the river generally make most of them leery of calls to wall off the 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico and of crackdowns that might complicate border crossings and harm a mutually beneficial way of life.

As the largest US city on the border, El Paso has long had a front-row seat to the complexities and trade-offs of the nation's immigration laws. Founded by the Spanish before the English settlement of Jamestown and Plymouth, and with claims to creating both the margarita and Thanksgiving, El Paso-Juarez is an easygoing but hardworking region that has grown into a "borderplex" of 2 million residents.

Now North America's fourth-largest manufacturing hub -- after Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas-Fort Worth -- El Paso and Juarez's surrounding state of Chihuahua have 270,000 manufacturing jobs, three times as many as Detroit, in 400 maquiladoras, or duty-free factories, economic development officials said. About 78 percent of residents are Hispanic, and 25 percent are foreign-born. Families send breadwinners across the bridge daily to work, and children to study.

Many local officials interviewed recently expressed little enthusiasm for the increased security measures, and civil liberties groups have said that the harsher enforcement approach might have contributed to recent fatal Border Patrol shootings.

On Aug. 8, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed a suspected smuggler. It was the fifth fatal Border Patrol shooting this year. The same day, US authorities reported the deaths of two immigrants in custody.

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