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Catching illegal immigrants on the highway in Florida

Mexicans have a name for it. They call it el ojo, the eye. When they say ojo, they point to the middle of the forehead. It means indefinable recognition — to see and just know. • Border Patrol agent Steve McDonald has el ojo. He says his ojo has taken 27 years to perfect. Younger agents roll their eyes when he says that.

He's 53, four years from mandatory retirement. They like to think he's losing it. When McDonald once chased a Mexican without papers, a second Mexican sprinted past both of them. He still chases smugglers. But when he catches them, he's too pooped for the fight.

His surveillance spot is a break in the median on a hellish stretch of Interstate 75 just north of the exit to Florida's Turnpike. The only scenery there is the "We Bare All" billboards for Cafe Risque in Micanopy.

He reposes in a big plush seat in a black Crown Victoria with the motor running. There's no sound in the car except cop radio chatter. He watches the southbound traffic roll by at 75 mph. He's looking for smugglers with human cargo. He has two seconds to single out a car or van, to study the facial expression of the driver, and to examine the color of the license plate.

The agent is looking for tags colored Arizona or Texas, and for faces that freeze in fear.

He looks like he's wasting his time. Traffic comes in clusters. Tags disappear in a blur. As for faces frozen in fear, what driver wouldn't see a black Crown Vic in the median and look a little nervous, wondering, maybe, if 75 mph was ticket-worthy?

McDonald swears he knows the difference.

He likes to think about history while he's sitting there. He might otherwise have been a history teacher. His interest is key moments of conflict — battles in which fate could have swung either way.

Remember the Battle of Hastings? In 1066? A Norman archer hit the English king right in the eye. "A well-placed arrow," McDonald muses.

He waits, he looks, his arrow going nowhere. At 9 a.m., three hours into his shift, a white van rolls by. It has tinted windows and a Texas temporary tag. McDonald gets behind it. The tag expired a week ago. He runs the number on his laptop. No hits. Then he pulls alongside, staring at the driver. The driver stares back, looking indifferent.

McDonald passes the van, slows down, and the van passes him. They trade places for a few miles. Then the agent decides: This is no smuggler. This is probably some guy with kids in back headed to Disney World.

He turns back to his spot on the median.

He just knows.

• • •

Under the law, the Border Patrol can't stop just anybody. McDonald must have a "reasonable suspicion" that he's on the tail of a smuggler.

He's only vaguely familiar with the Arizona law that was to empower local police officers to detain people they think might be in the country illegally. A federal judge has put parts of the law on hold.

Many in Florida have envied Arizona's law. It's a campaign issue. McDonald doesn't think untrained police officers could do much detaining without rounding up innocent people. Federal immigration law is complicated. Even some people here illegally can't be detained if they have a pending application for legal status.

He goes the whole day without stopping one car.

He swears that he did not miss any smugglers.

They just didn't come by.

• • •

Nine hours into his shift, McDonald starts back to his office in Tampa. He's frustrated after coming up empty. He has one more trick. He gets in the slow lane and sets the Crown Vic at 60. He lets the rest of traffic stream past.

A tan Altima comes along. The driver looks at McDonald and noticeably stiffens. McDonald stares back. The man's eyes go wide. He eases past, then signals for the right lane. He stays just ahead of McDonald. He has tinted windows and a Texas plate.

Wordlessly, the agent starts tapping on his laptop. He's running the plate. It gives him a Houston address. Houston is a smuggling hub. He runs the address through Border Patrol and it comes back flagged. Three smuggling incidents are connected to that address — one just this summer.

He radios a couple of other agents who are checking traffic about 10 miles behind him. He asks for backup. Then he lights up the Crown Vic, and the Altima pulls over.

Behind the wheel is Ivan Cruzmartinez. He's a 30-year-old Mexican. He speaks no English. He has a fake international driver's license.

He steps out of the car and McDonald instantly handcuffs him because of his size. He's just 5-6, but a muscular 212 pounds. He doesn't try to run. He immediately admits that he's illegal and so are his passengers.

The agent pulls another four men out of the car, all Spanish-speaking, all in their 20s. They look like kids. No one has a weapon. They look shocked. They look like they don't want a fight.

They say they each gave Cruzmartinez $200 to drive them from Houston to landscaping jobs near Sarasota.

He ties their hands with wristbands and tells them to sit in the grass.

McDonald's fellow agents catch up with him. The Altima had gone right past their highway stakeout. They didn't catch it. McDonald had the one well-placed arrow.

"Experience counts for something," he teases them. "Call me an old man all you want."

The young agents smile at each other and roll their eyes.

John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2258.

Catching illegal immigrants on the highway in Florida 08/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 6:07pm]
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