Friday, January 26, 2007
Border battle moves to Arizona's sewers

Illegal immigrants use tunnels like this one to enter the United States.

The cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, are separated by a huge wall.

Many people illegally come into the United States over the wall or through broken portions of it. But the U.S. Border Patrol has gotten increasingly aggressive at patrolling this area, so illegal immigrants are increasingly adopting a subterranean tactic -- they are sneaking through the sewer system that sits under both cities.

This story attracted our attention when we heard that over a recent three month period, more than 1700 illegal immigrants were apprehended in the tunnels that act as sewers and storm drains for the city. They were captured by a specially trained U.S. Border Patrol unit that works within the pitch dark confines of the tunnels.

We spent a day with them recently in the muck and utter darkness of the sprawling sewer system. There is no way to see anything without night vision goggles. For the first 15 minutes of patrolling all was quiet.

We passed smaller tunnels in the sides of the wall with welded grates that are often broken by smugglers and illegal immigrants. Everything seems relatively routine, except for the vermin we hear scampering around. But then, the agents command us not to make a noise.

Watch Border Patrol agents take to the sewers


They hear something a few hundred feet away; on the other side of the line that separates the U.S. from Mexico. They get their weapons ready. Their night vision goggles make it clear that at least six individuals are hovering in the darkness.

They ask in Spanish, "Who is it?" There is no response.

"We are American police," an agent yells. "Slow down."

We hear the mystery people responding, but their soft voices make it hard to understand what they are saying. Minutes go by where we do not move. Down here, there is always concern that smugglers with nothing to lose will fire first, then agents tell me.

And then we see bright lights.

It turns out they are the lights of Mexican authorities, who the Border Patrol called to help out on their side of the tunnel. By then, the six people in question disappeared; not into the United States, but somewhere back in Mexico.

The mission is over. The agents consider it a routine day; we on the other hand, are still struck by the tension in the sewers.

Our clothes soaking wet, we climb through a side tunnel to get out, and exit through a sewer cap on a downtown Nogales, Arizona, street. I am struck by how none of the people passing by seem surprised to see a man climbing out of the sewer.

Within 30 minutes, we see four illegal immigrants arrested above ground in two different incidents after they get by the border fence. Just another normal day in Nogales.

Posted By Gary Tuchman, CNN Correspondent: 10:24 AM ET
  20 Comments
Why don't we look at the morality of breaking the law to get what you want.
Why don't we focus all our immigration efforts in speeding the process so that we can get people legally into our society?

What message is this sending to people who are in foreign countries thinking about emigrating into the U.S. if they see that the U.S. eventually pardons law-breakers?

If you want something badly enough do you just go out and break a law and take it?
Posted By Anonymous xtina - chicago IL : 12:26 PM ET
Hi Gary~
It is amazing how desperate the Mexican people are. I'm curious. Besides the illegal immigration problem, what are the health risk of passing through the sewer to cross the border? As you pointed out you were walking through sewage slush. Ask Dr. Gupta what is in that! The Mexican Brown Bats that were circling over heads are well known carriers of the fatal rabies. Rodents, roaches, and other vermin carry numerous other diseases. Thanks for the report. I hope you threw away your shoes!
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann, Nacogdoches TX : 1:01 PM ET
Gary, I thought your story was great last night! I can't emagine being in the darkness and seeing people coming toward you. I'd be scared to death, not knowing if they were armed. Good story. I always enjoy your work...
Posted By Anonymous Jess, Paris, KY : 1:43 PM ET
If Mexican illegals are coming into the U.S. via tunnels, wouldn't it make sense to fill in the tunnels at the U.S./Mexican border?
Posted By Anonymous Barrie Locke, Fairport, NY : 2:14 PM ET
Dear Gary,

Again you have brought us another fascinating report! As I watched you and the Border Patrol agents approaching the people in the tunnel, I couldn't help but wonder if the way these agents do their jobs has been effected by the trial and conviction of Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Campean. It is frightening to think that any hesitation by agents in the field due to this conviction could result in their deaths or serious injuries.

Under the conditions you showed us in the tunnels, how can these agents be expected to be able to recognize who is a dangerous "smuggler with nothing to lose" and who isn't?

Both the United States and Mexico are responsible for this escalating problem. I hope it will be adequately addressed before it is too late.

I would be interested in seeing an update on Ramos and Campean and their efforts to obtain a presidential pardon.

Take care,
Jo Ann
Posted By Anonymous Jo Ann Matese, North Royalton, Ohio : 2:17 PM ET
Mexico had over 20 million visitors last year who spent over 10 billion dollars. Yet the average daily wage is about $5 usd.
Farm workers can come over to California and make $5 per hour vs. $5 a day so as long as this continues, so will the illegal crossings. Stinky tunnels are the least of their worries.
Posted By Anonymous Sheri S. Toronto, Canada : 3:54 PM ET
Which just goes to show: there's no fence that can keep you out if you want in bad enough.
Posted By Anonymous Connie, Louisville, Tn. : 4:14 PM ET
What does that tell you about America if we actually post Our people in the sewers to keep people out. If they are willing to take the risk of SERIOUS illnesses and infections to enter this country then hey,..But I think it is sort of petty on our part to stoop that low. Catch them on the way out.

Oh and does anyone see any similarities with us having a fence, excuse me WALL...Oh and were they not HERE first; like, oh, say the "Indians".....Oh wait...Native Americans....OH WAITTTT.....NATIVE AMERICANS...NORTH AMERICA...History repeats itself. It's just a different Place and a different Time.

Hey, how come it is so easy for Canadians to come over? Oh wait, they dont want to live here, they got health care.
Why do we want to live here, THEY HAVE HEALTH CARE!!!!!Mass immigration to CANADA folks! (another place, another time.)
Posted By Anonymous Rebekah; Covert, MI : 4:43 PM ET
Yes, the Mexican people in this story seem quite desperate. But, I guess I would be too if I were living in third world conditions and I knew I was just miles away from being able to work without paying taxes, get (free) healthcare without having health insurance and if I knew that employers would love to hire me over legitimate citizens because they wouldn't have to pay for any other benefits as well, thereby taking jobs away from people who DO pay taxes, who DO have health insurance coverage and who DO contribute economically to this country. Yes, I would trudge through a TON of sewage slush (human and rodent feces and... use your imagination) if I knew that the land of unlimited opportunity awaited me on the other side. Follow the yellow brick road, my friends.
Posted By Anonymous Debbie Darby, Denham Springs, LA : 6:01 PM ET
How desperate to climb through a dark sewer to gain freedom and a chance at a new life at any cost...And yet, in America, we often take our rights for granted. Offer these people jobs. Set them up to make it. Help them become citizens. Then the border patrol agents can use their resources to stop the drug transfers and terrorists from coming into the country. Most Americans are descended from immigrants who wanted the same things these Mexicans do. And in Louisiana right now, the Mexican workers are taking the jobs that US citizens think are beneath them. And these workers are rebuilding the state where some of our own citizens refuse. Illegal immigration is only a problem until our politicians have guts enough to create a humane solution that helps these people to make it here. I'm glad my great-grandparents had a kinder America on their side when they came from Sicily in the early 1900's. No human should have to crawl in a sewer to seek freedom in our country. Our founding fathers should be rolling in their graves.
Posted By Anonymous TA Cheramie, Berwick, LA : 6:16 PM ET
Hello Gary,

Great Work!! If we look hard and listen well and keep our wits about... we would understand that this is not a legal/illegal issue as some people with tunnel vision see it. This is a survival and quality of life issue which some of us conveniently deny for fear it might put a face on these people and their plight.
Posted By Anonymous W. Oppenheimer Skokie,IL : 11:13 PM ET
The fact that there are people still trying to sneak into the U.S. illegally shows that they like to come to the U.S. because they can't get what they can get in the U.S. in their own country. Let's say if they can get in their own country what they can get in the U.S., would they still want to come to the U.S?? I don't think so. So, the problem is really with these other countries as they are not improving and making lives better for their own people which cause them to want to even break the laws to come to the U.S. illegally. That just shows how desperate a condition they are in in their own countries. Because, what would cause someone to break the laws and try to sneak into another country illegally?? They must be wanting a better life very desperately and can't get that in their own country and think that's worth it to break the laws. I think the government in these other countries should really try to improve the lives and conditions of the people in their own country and let them be able to make as much money as they can in the U.S. Really, if they can make as much money as they can in the U.S. or where they are at is just as good as being in the U.S., I don't think people would keep wanting to come to the U.S. You don't see the people in rich countries wanting to come to the U.S. that much such as the Europeans. It's usually those people from poorer countries and less developed ones who like to come to the U.S. because they can get a better life and things in the U.S which they can't get in their own countries. I think these other poorer countries should make an effort to help with the living standards of the people there and if they don't have the financial resources for that, then maybe the U.S. can help a bit..
Posted By Anonymous Isabel, Phoenix, Arizona : 1:13 PM ET
Illegal aliens crossing the border via sewer tunnels did not surprise me. Would it not be possible to make the sewer opening covers very heavy and somehow lock them in place where the city with special equipment would be the only ones to have access to open them. I feel the illegals/smugglers utilize those sewer openings more than the city does in which the U.S. citizens pay for. Another unfair tax dollar.
Posted By Anonymous Ingrid, Mission Viejo, CA : 4:57 PM ET
Instead of the focus being on the illegals in America, it should be on why they are illegal. If the process were easier, we would not have this problem. In a very simplistic way of thinking, our governement should be flattered that so many people would die to join our society.
Posted By Anonymous Stefanie, Lapeer, Mi : 11:21 AM ET
With the millions of illegal Mexican immigrants living in the United States, it kind of ticks me off every year when I pay my immigration fees to the Mexican government for the right to live and work in Mexico. I think U.S. citizens immigrating to Mexico should be exempt from immigration fees. Well, at least I don't have to travel through sewers.
Posted By Anonymous Gypsy, an American in Mexico : 3:25 PM ET
At some point, the cost of securing the borders will exceed the cost of helping our southern neighbor to improve their economy and remove the economic incentives for people to work in the US illegally.

Try to live on $1/hr or less and see what borders you'll sneak by and laws you would break to feed your family.
Posted By Anonymous Peter, West Sacramento, California : 6:31 PM ET
That could be solved very easily . Place monitor beams in the walls not visible to the eyes of those passing through . Pick them up as they try to come out . Why endanger the border patrolmen lives in the sewer . We have the technology why aren't we using it .
Posted By Anonymous charles, Gainesboro , Tennessee. : 8:38 AM ET
Why not monitor beams planted in the walls of the sewer pipes Not visible to the eye of those passing through . You get a count of how many are coming through . You don't risk our border patrolmen safety and you have the advantage of knowing how many you will be dealing with when they try to exit the sewer .
Posted By Anonymous charles, Gainesboro , Tennessee. : 8:56 AM ET
Having worked for 25 years for a small City just north of Atlanta which went from predominately white to 56% hispanic in 20 years I can tell you that it is very hard to arouse public sympathy for the immigrants or the true victims of the war. Anderson, what you do that is so very important in this and all of your stories is to show the individuals who are most affected by desperate circumstances. Whether at the Mexican border, Iraq, or the streets of American cities, we must all remember that these are people not unlike most of us who must deal every day with situations most of us can only imagine in our worst nightmares. Know that you make a difference by being their voice.
Posted By Anonymous K Brannon, Chamblee, GA : 12:44 PM ET
This brings to mind many of the futuristic movie and book plots we've all seen. Rich people living above and the poor outcasts living in the sewers below. Makes you thing how close we are to what was once Sci Fi. And if life turely imitates art, how close are we to those revolts in the movies?
Posted By Anonymous Renae - Appleton, WI : 1:42 PM ET
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