Border-patrol agent Nate Lagasse is sitting quietly in his Toyota Land Cruiser about three miles west of a small Arizona town on the Mexican border, following a group of 12 immigrants through his night-vision goggles. He radios directions to three colleagues, who are out in the mesquite on foot and closing in on the aliens. "They don't even know we are here yet," whispers Lagasse, who has turned off his headlights and allowed his truck to roll to a halt without hitting the brakes. "It's just like hunting."
Something alerts the aliens, and they hit the dirt, probably at the order of the coyote, or guide, they have paid to get them across. But Lagasse has marked their location and talks his three agents in on top of them. After a few minutes, a voice comes over his radio: "We have them now." The immigrants make no attempt to escape. The sight of a few agents in uniform is often enough to pacify a large group; some agents have singlehandedly detained 100 people at once.
Between 6 million and 12 million illegal aliens live in the U.S., the majority are from Mexico and most move through Arizona. It draws more than a third of the illegals, including 14 men who died of dehydration near Yuma after the temperature hit 115[degrees] two weeks ago. But the busiest place in the state is the tiny border town of Naco, a place so anonymous that its name derives from the last two letters of Arizona and Mexico. Naco (pop. 800) is little more than a bar, a school, a couple of streets and 220 border-patrol agents. Across the line in Mexico is a town with the same name, 10 times the population and all the makings of a first-class staging area-- guest houses, grocery stores and an army of local guides, or coyotes, to show the way.
As soon as the sun goes down, hundreds of men, women and children, armed with water bottles, toothbrushes, toilet paper and perhaps phone numbers in Phoenix, or Denver or Los Angeles, come walking, running and crawling north across the border. Each night border-patrol agents round up roughly 500 and next morning return them to Mexico, only to have them start all over again the following evening. It's a never-ending drill, often with life-and-death stakes. The border patrol says 383 people died last year attempting to cross the border from Mexico. "Is this problem solvable?" asks Victor Manjarrez, 37, top agent in the Naco station. "I think we in the border patrol are getting better at what we are doing. But with a Third World economy to the south and a First World economic power to the north, you will always have this problem."
THE GAME Every night a busy industry gears up to test the weak points all along the border's 1,952 miles. In Tijuana smugglers cram three people into a car trunk and a fourth behind a dashboard, then drive through the customs checkpoint, hoping nobody suspects anything. In Calexico aliens float down a stream choked with toxic chemicals and sewage, betting the border patrol won't jump in to pull them out. In nearby Nogales smugglers tunnel 6 ft. under the border and funnel people through.