Glow Dust To Tag Illegal Immigrants?

In a proposal likely to add to the angry debate about illegal immigration in California, a well-known scientist is calling for the U.S. Border Patrol to sprinkle fluorescent dust at the U.S.-Mexico border in order to track down illegal border-crossers.

The low-cost, low-tech plan would improve border enforcement dramatically and pose no danger to people "tagged" by the glowing dust, according to an article in today's edition of Science magazine.

"Twilight Zone" feeling

But the somewhat surreal, politically charged image of the U.S. government exposing illegal immigrants to chemicals, then tracking them down with lasers and ultraviolet lights provoked criticism from immigrants' advocates.

"It's incredible," said activist Roberto Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego. "It's like something out of the Twilight Zone. The symbolism is that these are not humans, that these are insects to be sprayed."

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials reacted cautiously to the proposal. Steve McDonald, a spokesman for the INS in Washington, D.C., said he was aware of the article but knows of no such plans or studies by federal authorities.

"There's obvious concerns that would have to be looked at: toxicity, impact on the environment," McDonald said. "While we would look at all possibilities to enhance our enforcement operations, we look at them all in the perspective of the impact on people, the environment and the community. It's nothing we would take lightly."

The author of the article is Bill Wattenburg - a respected physicist, inventor and radio talk-show host based at California State University, Chico. Wattenburg said that he and the editors of Science magazine know full well that they are advancing a provocative idea at a sensitive time. California's Proposition 187, a ballot measure proposing tough immigration enforcement measures, has already intensified the controversy statewide.

Wattenburg rejected charges that it would be dangerous. "Look at what they are doing now: You have to chase people with helicopters and dogs, use chain-link fences. `What's the difference if you mark them with something that's harmless? . . . There is an enormous range of commonly used, nontoxic, bio-degradable substances."

High-tech tracking

As part of what Wattenburg calls "Fluorescent Tagging of Infiltrators," tractors or hand-propelled dispensers would lay down bands of invisible material in highly traversed crossing zones at the border, where passing vehicles and people would pick up the particles.

Agents in planes and vehicles could then track down illegal crossers and identify them with lasers or ultraviolet lights that make the particles glow, according to the article. The chemical could be prepared to last for hours or for days, although Wattenburg said the intent would be to detect illegal immigrants close to the border.

The Border Patrol, which has long suffered from lack of funds and technology, already uses an array of infrared nightscopes, closed circuit cameras and motion sensors. But Wattenburg said his plan could double the agency's effectiveness. He said he is prepared to conduct a six-month, $500,000 experiment in San Diego, where agents make almost half of the million-plus arrests borderwide.

Wattenburg has grown used to the public spotlight, cultivating an image as a thoughtful maverick whose inventions have been heeded by the government on several occasions. For example, his advice played a role in the Pentagon's decision last year to change the way it air-dropped supplies into Bosnia.