April 8, 2013
by Bob Ortega
AT THE ARIZONA-MEXICO BORDER -- Rancher Jim Chilton wrestles his brush-scarred Ford F-350 pickup truck down the rutted dirt road that leads to the Mexican border. He spots a youth ahead, walking south, stooped with exhaustion. The boy, dusty, his ragged pants tied at the waist with rope, looks back as the truck jounces towards him, but he doesn’t run. “Notice the carpet shoes?” Chilton asks a passenger. Drug smugglers tie on carpet-soled overshoes to disguise their tracks, he observes, as he rolls down his window.
“Do you need water?” Chilton asks the boy in Spanish. “Sí, gracias,” he says. He eagerly guzzles from the two-liter bottle Chilton passes him. The boy says he’s Ivan, 15, and that he ran out of food and water two days earlier.
This encounter between a rancher and a migrant — or, possibly, a smuggler — on a remote stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona’s Altar Valley might seem happenstance. But in an important sense, it is not: The more than $106 billion the United States has spent on securing and militarizing its Southwest border over the last five years has created this situation, bringing them together here on this day, the armed rancher guarding his land, the boy using it as a travel route.
Those billions have built a new iron curtain along more than 650 miles of the border and and more than doubled the number of Border Patrol agents along it to almost 18,500. They have erected scores of surveillance towers and planted thousands of hidden sensors. They have added an armada of drones, aircraft, canine teams, horse patrols, checkpoints and vehicle patrols that range up to 60 miles from the actual border to arrest migrants and catch drug smugglers.
All of this infrastructure — along with a 58 percent drop in the number of migrants arrested by the Border Patrol compared with five years ago — underpins Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s claim that the border is more secure now than it has ever been.
Now, with the U.S.. Senate expected this week to introduce a bill to overhaul immigration laws, skeptics — particularly Arizona Republicans — say any changes must be predicated on making the border still more secure, and on finding a definitive measure for when it is secure enough. But look beyond the pages of statistics on migrant detentions and drug seizures; visit the border to see how the buildup has affected those who live here and those who cross through here, and a less black-and-white picture emerges.
This picture suggests that the costs of securing the border already have been extraordinarily high, not just in dollars, but in lives. It suggests that all of this security has done little to stanch the flow of millions of pounds of drugs north — or of 250,000 guns a year and billions of dollars south. And it suggests, as those who have studied this issue closely maintain, that locking down the entire border would be prohibitively expensive and still fail to halt drug smuggling.
“The border is more secure now than at any time in U.S. history,” said Robert Bonner, a former head both of Customs and Border Protection and of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Southwest Border Task Force. “But it’s not under control in any law-enforcement sense.”
There’s broad agreement that the deep U.S. economic recession has been the biggest factor in driving down migration north over the past five years. The new fences, technology and increased enforcement have made a difference, too. But they have not so much stopped the migrants and drug smugglers as they have redirected them from busy border towns such as San Diego, El Paso and Laredo, to remote desert trails in the wilds of Arizona and south Texas.
So it is with the teenager, Ivan, who says he spent a month freight-hopping and working his way north toward Atlanta from the hardscrabble farming town of Tuxpan, in the central Mexican state of Michoacan. Five years ago, his older brother crossed easily into Texas from Nuevo Laredo. But Ivan couldn’t take that path — too many walls and agents; he says he was told the only way to avoid La Migra, the Border Patrol, was to hike through the desert.
Many migrants and human-rights activists on the border say that the drug cartels now control the crossing routes; guides and migrants must pay a tribute. For migrants, “if they don’t have money, they have to carry drugs,” said Hilda Loureiro, who with her husband runs the San Juan Bosco shelter for migrants in Nogales, Sonora. For young men, that usually means backpacking a bale of marijuana.
Ivan, between gulps of water, denies involvement with drug -smuggling, saying he’d come north to find work so he could send money back to his family. Why then was he was walking south toward the border, on this rutted dirt road leading to the town of Saric, a notorious staging point for drug smugglers? Because, he says, after two days without water and two nights shivering in near-freezing temperatures in his black T-shirt and thin jeans jacket, he’s done.
“I can’t go any farther — I want to see La Migra,” he adds, wiping his dusty face.
All the same, when a Border Patrol truck rolls up a few minutes later, Ivan’s shoulders sag and he sighs, utterly deflated.
The view from above: Fence at $6.5 million per mileThe Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, stretching 264 miles from the Yuma County line to the New Mexico border is the nation’s busiest by almost every government measure. Flying along the border in one of CBP’s Astar AS350 helicopters, it’s easy to see both the extent and the limitations of the CBP and the Border Patrol’s security measures.
Like a seam through the apartment and house-covered hills of Nogales, much more urbanized on the Mexican side, an 18-foot-tall steel fence, punctuated by 11 surveillance towers, stretches some eight miles from the main port of entry to the west. It rises and falls through neighborhoods that peter out into cattle pens and then scrublands dotted with mesquite trees. The Border Patrol has built or improved outlying roads to give agents faster access. Their green-and-white vehicles dot the roads.
Mobile surveillance units — trucks with cameras and radar systems — perch on sere hilltops. Screens and radio communications in the Astar’s cockpit show eight other aircraft, and one of the sector’s two drones, are aloft over some portion of the Tucson sector’s border.
But as pilot Steve Fasciola, deputy director of CBP’s Tucson air branch, flies farther west, towards the Altar Valley and the rugged Baboquivari Mountain range, the daunting nature of the challenge becomes clear.
The “pedestrian” fence, built at an average cost of $6.5 million a mile, according to a 2011 report by Homeland Security’s inspector general, ends abruptly. Beyond are miles of rolling grasslands and scrub desert. In the riverbeds and flats, there are stretches of vehicle fencing, essentially I-beams welded together in a sawhorse shape, $1.8 million a mile, interspersed with four-strand barbed-wire fence and, on the steep mountain slopes, no fences at all.
Most of this stretch is roadless, but scores of trails can be seen crossing from Mexico into Arizona, both in the flats and in the mountains. Fasciola circles over one peak where a small canopy and sleeping bag have been hurriedly abandoned. The distinctive sound of the helicopter’s rotors gives plenty of warning, Fasciola says through his headset.
“Most of the prominent peaks have scouts. Narcotics organizations put people up there with binoculars, radios and cellphones. They’ll monitor the Border Patrol and tell the traffickers where to go and when,” Fasciola says. “It’s a tough area for agents to work in. The terrain makes it easy to hide. It’s hard to access, and if we do catch up to groups, getting them out is tough as well.”
But then, that was the whole point of building stronger fences, Fasciola says. “Everybody knew that this is what it would do: push people to the edges and the remote areas.”
In the early and mid-1990s, San Diego was easily the busiest crossing point for migrants. Some parts of the border there were marked by a single cable. But by 2005, 14 miles of new steel fences had gone up, including, in some places, double or triple layers separated by a 150-foot floodlit “no man’s land.” These cut crossings, as imperfectly measured by apprehensions, by 95 percent.
As more fences went up in California, crossers pushed east into Yuma. From 2002 to 2005, apprehensions in the Yuma sector more than tripled. By 2005, Border Patrol agents there were nabbing an average of 375 migrants a day — double that on some days — and sending them right back across in what agents dismissed as “catch-and release.” Smugglers drove some 2,700 vehicles illegally across the border that year. Scores of migrants would gather at a time near San Luis, south of Yuma, and charge across the border, knowing most could slip past while outnumbered Border Patrol agents tried to grab whomever they could, like in a giant game of Red Rover, said agents in Yuma.
“They called them ‘banzai runs,’ ” Border Patrol Agent Spencer Tippets said. “There were so many people, it wasn’t unknown to arrest someone twice in a single shift.”
These days, some politicians point to Yuma as an example of how the rest of the border should be locked down. An ambitious effort starting in 2006 built 98 new miles of fencing, including a 68-mile stretch going deep into the Sonoran Desert, a San Diego-style floodlit triple fence along 1.7 miles of the most urbanized part of the Mexican border town of San Luis Rio Colorado, 16 miles of pedestrian fencing nearby, and 13 miles of vehicle fence along a section of border where the Colorado River runs low enough for vehicles to cross. Hundreds of National Guard units were brought in to help the Border Patrol, even as the number of agents in that sector nearly tripled.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 and a separate homeland-security bill called for building up to 700 miles of fencing, vastly boosting the use of sensors, unmanned aircraft and other technology, and doubling the number of Border Patrol agents along the whole border. More benchmarks were set in 2007 in an immigration-reform bill that ultimately failed.
In an effort to drive migrants elsewhere, Homeland Security adopted new, controversial strategies.
One, dubbed Operation Streamline, called for criminally prosecuting nearly all undocumented migrants in the highest-volume sectors (initially El Centro, in California, and the Yuma sector), for what previously had been considered civil violations. Migrants were held overnight or longer — and under another strategy, “lateral repatriation,” many were transported far to the east or west to make it harder for them to cross again right away after they were deported.
By 2009, the number of migrants apprehended in the Yuma sector had fallen by 95 percent from 2005 (versus 55 percent nationally). They’ve stayed down since, with 6,500 last fiscal year, according to the Border Patrol. That’s an average of fewer than 18 a day.
So where did all the migrants go? The dropping national figures suggest many stayed home as the job magnet of the U.S. economy weakened. But some tried their luck farther east, in the Tucson sector, which is harder to secure because of its size and rugged terrain. That sector saw a much slower decline (43 percent) over those years than Yuma or the nation as a whole.
And even as the migrants moved east, a second factor changed: more drugs coming through. The smugglers’ routes, too, were redirected by the taller fences and increased security. That’s clear from both CBP seizure data and from accounts by the ranchers who live on or near what have become some of the main routes — through the Altar Valley west of Nogales, through the Santa Cruz foothills east of the Interstate 19 corridor, or near Douglas, farther east.
These are the areas where some ranchers say they’ve fenced off their houses and sleep with guns by their beds.
Boots on the ground: Fewer crossings, more deaths
As Jim and Sue Chilton weave their truck down a winding dirt road through their 50,000-acre ranch, which includes a 5 1/2-mile slice of the Mexican border, they carry a .223 rifle with a 20-round clip, a 12-gauge shotgun, and water and food for migrants they may meet. In the past five years, the Chiltons put in 13 water fountains on their wells and the water lines leading to cattle troughs throughout their ranch, in hopes that migrants will use the fountains instead of damaging the pipes trying to get clean water.
“There’s nothing worse than running into people who are desperate, which we’ve done many times,” says Jim Chilton. He’s 74; Sue Chilton is 70. They’ve owned their ranch for 27 years, but Jim Chilton is a fifth-generation Arizona rancher.
One recent afternoon, they lead two journalists on a vigorous hike up a brush-studded gully to a hillside where last December Jim Chilton found four backpack-sized bales of marijuana, abandoned by smugglers who apparently fled on seeing him coming. Clothes and water bottles still litter the site. Farther up another hill, under a large overhanging mesquite tree that shields anyone under it from being seen from the air, more water bottles and other garbage carpet the ground.
Both of the Chiltons can tell tale after tale of encounters. One of their favorites is recent: In December, they let an NBC television crew place a camouflaged, motion-sensor video camera near where they found the marijuana.
“That thing was so well disguised, there’s no way you could have spotted it from the trail,” says Jim Chilton. But when he retrieved the camera and sent it to the network a week later, the video showed someone had walked up about 40 minutes after they’d placed the camera, and turned the lens so it pointed straight up into the air — meaning, Chilton says, with a rueful laugh, that cartel scouts must have been watching from a nearby hillside all along.
Other ranchers’ stories run along a similar vein.
Five years ago, scores of people walked across his ranch daily, mostly migrants heading north to find jobs, says Joe King, whose family has operated the Anvil Ranch, north of Sasabe and west of I-19, the Nogales-Tucson highway, since 1885. Those migrants left lots of trash and often damaged pipes and cattle troughs trying to get water, he says. As their numbers have dwindled, the drug smugglers have increased.
“The ones now, they don’t want to be seen, they don’t want to be noticed,” King said. “They don’t leave a lot of garbage, they’re stealthier.”
They’re also scarier, said Bill McGibbon, whose Santa Rita ranch lies east of I-19 beneath its namesake mountains.
“My wife, daughter in law and daughter are afraid to go out alone,” said McGibbon, who has lived near the border for 46 years. “I’ve had my cowboys threatened by drug people, and had rifles aimed at them – and by the time you alert the Border Patrol, they’re long gone.”
Veterinarian Gary Thrasher, who has a ranch near the small town of Palominas, west of Douglas, and travels that section of the border treating cattle and other animals, said of the Border Patrol’s strategy, “They’ve actually pretty well sealed the towns along the border, made them safe: Naco, Douglas, Nogales … Statistically, you can say it’s safer than it used to be; but they’ve driven it into more dangerous places than ever, farther from communication, farther from response time, where cellphones don’t work. People there are getting more traffic and getting more danger.”
The most frequent victims of this change in routes have been the migrants themselves. Even as fewer people cross illegally, more of them are dying. Last fiscal year, Border Patrol agents rescued 1,333 migrants, according to CBP. But 477 migrants died trying to cross from Mexico. Compared with five years ago, 20 percent more died last year even as Border Patrol apprehensions fell by 58 percent.
Looked at as a ratio, a migrant was three times likelier to die crossing the border last year than in 2007.
At the shelter in Nogales: “I’ll try again”
On a recent, brisk evening in Nogales, Sonora, deportees sit outside the local office of Grupo Beta on wooden benches, sharing warnings and tales of dangers with migrants who haven’t yet tried their luck. Most Mexican border towns, have a Grupo Beta office; it’s the Mexican federal agency that helps those newly deported from the United States and other migrants find food, shelter or a way home. “Don’t put yourself or your family in danger,” blares a poster on one wall. “Putting your children in the hands of coyotes or polleros is like abandoning them in the desert,” warns another.
It’s easy to spot the deportees. They’re the ones without belts or shoelaces. Border Patrol agents remove those from the people they detain to deter suicide attempts, and they don’t generally give them back.
Felipe Reyes Toledo sits with two other youths, waiting for a ride to a shelter where he’ll be fed and given a cot for the night. His left arm is in a sling, his left leg heavily bandaged. His wispy beard makes him look younger than his 20 years.
Reyes, who’s from Oaxaca, says he crossed the border two weeks earlier, north of the town of Altar, with two other men and four young women. Their guide collected $500 from each of them; but he ditched them in the desert. After three days without food or water, they were nearing a major highway (Reyes couldn’t name it, but his description matches I-19), when they were confronted by a group of five armed men — what the Border Patrol calls a “rip” crew — robbers who target drug smugglers and migrants.
“Two of the girls ran away,” says Reyes in a low voice. “When they took the other two girls away, we tried to stop them, and they beat us until we played dead. We were hurt, but we made our way to the highway and La Migra came up. They held us three days. Then they brought me here two days ago.”
He says he has no idea what happened to any of the others he was with. Reyes had hoped to find work so he could send money home to his family, who grows corn. But now he’s headed back to Oaxaca.
Mirna Valerio, a cheerful, chatty woman with a mop of curly black hair, offers her warning: Don’t believe, as she and her husband did, the people who charge you $100 to put a ladder against the fence right in downtown Nogales, saying you can climb over and quickly blend into the crowds.
“It’s a lie,” she says, shaking her head. “We were spotted immediately. We ran but they caught us.”
She, too, says it’s too tough to cross now. She shrugs, sighs and says she and her husband, Misal Hernandez, are heading back home to Puebla the next day.
Such stories do little to dissuade others who’ve trekked for days and weeks just to get this far. As the migrants pack into a long van that rattles its way to the San Juan Bosco shelter on the south end of town, Jose, 17, says he spent a week and a half hopping 15 freight trains to get to Nogales from Escuintla, on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.
“You have to pay attention; there are robbers on the trains,” he says. Other passengers nod and murmur in agreement. “It’s easy to cross the border into Mexico, but then you have to pay,” he adds.
Another passengers asks him where he’ll cross. “Don’t do it here,” calls out a man in the back. “Cross in Tijuana – it’s an easier walk, more trees, less mountainous.” Another passenger shakes his head, muttering that Tijuana isn’t like it used to be.
The shelter, which Hilda and Francisco Loureiro have operated for 31 years, is tidy, safe and spartan. Before dinner, the migrants sit on folding chairs in the chapel, where an officer from the Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, after explaining to the non-Mexicans what their rights are in Mexico, again warns them about the dangers they’ll face.
“Be aware that you do risk your life,” the man tells them. “People get lost, run out of food, out of water. You may be kidnapped, attacked… and in the U.S., it’s not like here. It’s a crime to enter the country illegally. It’s their house; it’s their rules.”
But the next morning, as the rain drums on the tin roof of a soup kitchen, run by Catholic nuns and priests, where the migrants have been sent for breakfast, their plans continue.
After the talk, as others move to the dining room, Leidi del Lucero, 18, barely 5 feet tall, prays intently in a corner of the small chapel. On a nearby crucifix, both arms of the figure of Jesus are covered with red ID bracelets once worn by deportees.
She reluctantly admits she has been caught three times crossing near Nogales in the past two months. Each time, she says with a sigh, she paid a guide 3,000 pesos — about $240. The first time, she’d walked for three days when La Migra caught her group; the second time, for two days; the third time, she was caught after just one day. She has an older brother in El Norte, as some migrants call the United States, but she won’t say where because she’s not ready to give up. She made her way here from Playa del Carmen, on Yucatan’s Caribbean coast; and she’s hopeful her brother will wire her money for another guide.
“If my brother will help me, I’ll try again,” she says.
Manuel Gonzalez, 24, is one of at leave four men at the soup kitchen that morning trying to get back to their families in Phoenix. Gonzalez, wearing a crucifix around his neck, says he first crossed with his parents in 2004, and lived in Phoenix until last June, working in construction, washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant in Gilbert.
“I was stopped by the Mesa police,” he says. “I was driving without a license.”
After being detained nearly eight months, he was deported to Piedras Negras, west of Eagle Pass, Texas, ten days earlier. He says he’ll cross again. He has a daughter, Rosie, born in January, whom he’s never held. So he’ll try his luck shortly in Agua Prieta, south of Douglas, Ariz.
“I know the road there… there’s a wall, but not all over. Where I’ll cross there’s just car barriers,” he says. After a few moments of silence, he adds, looking around at the long tables where other migrants are eating their stew and tortillas, “I had a girlfriend, a house, a car, a phone, a dog… It’s a sad story. But there are a lot of them here.”
At the checkpoints: A million pounds of pot
At the Yuma port of entry, a line of traffic going north, most with Sonora plates, backs up at the Sentri lane for “trusted travelers” who’ve passed a security check. Customs officers are searching an SUV. They soon find tightly wrapped bundles of heroin in the wheel wells, and arrest the young, well-dressed woman driving it, cuffing her hands behind her back and taking her 4-year-old daughter into custody.
Even as the number of migrants detained annually in Arizona has dropped by 70 percent over the past five years, to about 126,500, according to CBP, drug seizures have climbed.
Legal ports of entry are where most heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine seizures are made, CBP officers say. In one week in mid-March, CBP officers made five seizures at Arizona ports of entry totaling 148 pounds of cocaine, 90 pounds of meth, and 9 pounds of heroin. But, by volume, marijuana dwarfs everything else. One day in mid-March, Nogales CBP officers seized a 1-ton shipment of pot in a tractor-trailer of bell peppers; the next day, they arrested another tractor-trailer driver with 6,219 pounds of marijuana in boxes labeled as vacuum pumps and lamp holders.
The Tucson sector is the main marijuana corridor from Mexico, accounting for 44 percent of all Border Patrol marijuana seizures across the entire Southwest border last fiscal year. Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector seized more than 1 million pounds of pot, down slightly from a year earlier but still up 14 percent from a then-record 890,000 pounds seized in 2007, according to CBP.
Most commonly, that marijuana is hauled across in remote areas by teams of backpackers, agents say. Tracking them remains a challenge. The drones (10 of which have cost $240 million to buy and operate to date) are useful, agents say, but they are sensitive to high winds and the Border Patrol hasn’t yet trained enough controllers to fly them. Last fiscal year, each drone averaged just over an hour and a half in the air a day.
The seizures haven’t made a dent in the street price. Five years ago, a pound of marijuana in Phoenix, the main trans-shipment point for pot from Mexico, typically sold for $400 to $650 a pound, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Last year’s price: $450 to $600 a pound.
Nor has border security dented traffic in guns headed south. Over the past five years, CBP and Border Patrol officers have seized, on average, fewer than 2,000 weapons a year presumably headed to the criminal groups sending the drugs north. That represents less than 1 percent of the estimated 252,000 weapons that are bought in the United States and smuggled south each year, according to a recent economic study by the University of San Diego’s Transborder Institute and the Igarapé Institute, based in Brazil.
“This is an issue that has been studiously ignored by the media,” said Topher MacDougal, one of the authors of the study. He calls for strong background checks, banning cash purchases of guns along the border and tougher criminal penalties for “straw” buyers — people with clean records who buy guns on behalf of those who wouldn’t pass background checks.
Current discussions about border security have been complicated by the sequester, steep budget cuts imposed by Congress last month, expected to stay in place through the end of the fiscal year in September. CBP said that furloughs and cuts in overtime would reduce Border Patrol agent hours for the rest of this fiscal year by the equivalent of 5,000 full-time positions, nearly a quarter of the force. Hours of CBP officers, who work in the ports of entry and rack up less overtime, would be cut 12.5 percent. Congress restored some funds through a continuing resolution in late March; CBP said it is re-evaluating its reductions.
The difference already is obvious. On a recent drive from I-19 through the town of Arivaca to Sasabe, a week before the sequester, 14 Border Patrol vehicles were visible along the road, in addition to three at a checkpoint. At one point about eight miles north of Sasabe, four glum migrants, cuffed by agents, sat waiting to be searched and loaded into a truck.
A week after the sequester, at the same time of day, the checkpoint was still operating; but not a single Border Patrol vehicle could be seen anywhere else along the same 43-mile route. A Border Patrol spokesman said the number of vehicles on the road had been reduced by half since the sequester, with agents doubling up. He did not know why none were visible that particular day.
How secure is the border? ‘You’ll never get it to zero’Inside his sprawling ranch house, Jim Chilton walks past a stuffed mountain lion and up a few steps to a heavy custom-made wooden dining-room table, and unrolls a map of the border. He jabs at it to make a point — one that is echoed by the local cattle growers association, as ranchers call themselves.
“They should secure the border at the border,” he says.
Border Patrol officials describe their strategy as multilayered. In urban areas such as downtown Nogales, where people can rapidly vanish and agents have minutes at most to detain crossers, they use large numbers of agents and cameras along the fence to try to spot and catch people immediately. In rural and desert areas, where it takes migrants and smugglers hours or days to get to major roads, agents use ground sensors, towers with cameras and night-vision lenses, truck-mounted mobile surveillance systems, agent patrols and checkpoints to try to catch people up to 60 miles north of the border.
Many ranchers say they see the need for immigration reforms, and say there should be easier ways for people who want work to enter the country legally.
But they’re indignant, even infuriated, by a strategy that, as rancher Gary Thrasher puts it, “makes where we live a third country, a no man’s land, and cedes it to the cartels.”
Ask any Arizona rancher about border security and almost inevitably the conversation will turn to Rob Krentz. He was shot to death on his ranch north of Douglas on March 27, 2010, after radioing his brother that he was going to help a migrant who seemed to be in trouble. No suspect was ever identified; but ranchers and most locals presume it was a drug smuggler. Krentz’s death immediately led to calls for increased border security from Arizona’s members of Congress and Gov. Jan Brewer. And it has continued to stoke fears among ranchers that drug violence is crossing the border.
But Krentz’s murder remains remarkable in its singularity, given the massive traffic. During the initial investigation, then-Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever noted that Krentz would be the first Arizona rancher killed by a smuggler in 30 years. Over the past decade in Arizona, federal and local law-enforcement officers have made thousands of arrests of smugglers, seized millions of pounds of marijuana and other drugs and have caught more than 3.6 million migrants.
In the Tucson sector alone, since 2006, agents have caught nearly 1.8 million migrants, and estimate that more than 850,000 have made it through.
Encounters involving the Border Patrol have been more often deadly. In the three years since Krentz was murdered, Border Patrol agents in Arizona have shot and killed six people — mostly youths or men either running from or allegedly throwing rocks at agents; but this tally includes agent Nicholas Ivie, shot to death Oct. 2 after he reportedly opened fire on two other agents responding to a tripped sensor near Naco.
Four other Border Patrol agents in Arizona have died in the line of duty since 2010: two killed when their vehicle was hit by a freight train near Yuma, another whose vehicle was struck by another car on the Tohono O’odham reservation, and one, Brian Terry, shot to death in an encounter with a suspected “rip” crew in December 2010 near Rio Rico. The weapon that killed Terry was linked to a federal operation, Fast & Furious, that lost track of guns allowed to be smuggled south in hopes of tracing them to high-ranking drug cartel members.
The ranchers vary on their proposed solutions — Joe King calls for stationing soldiers returning from Afghanistan along the border; David Lowell, who owns the Atascosa ranch in Peck Canyon, wants to see a solid wall along the entire border; Chilton calls for building more roads to give agents access to the parts they can’t get to easily now, dismissing worries about potential environmental impacts on local wildlife as overstated. But they largely demand that the Border Patrol stop smugglers and migrants as close to the border as possible.
Will that ever happen?
At a recent Border Expo in Phoenix, where military contractors and other vendors were pitching their wares to government officials, The Republic put the query to a posse of former CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement directors. They agreed, unanimously: never.
“It’s unrealistic to think we can catch everyone at the border,” said W. Ralph Basham, who served as Secret Service director and then as CBP commissioner under President George W. Bush. “That’s why the Border Patrol looks at it in layers ... To do it at the border is unachievable; the amount of money it would cost and the number of agents it would require would be beyond our capabilities.”
Julie Myers-Wood, former head of ICE under George W. Bush, called the ranchers’ demands “entirely divorced from reality.”
“It’s a zero-sum game,” added Jason Ahern, who served for 33 years in Customs, then CBP before retiring as acting commissioner in 2009. “You have to analyze your resources and deploy them in a thoughtful way.”
Current plans — unaffected by the sequester — call for more surveillance technology. Sixteen new mobile-surveillance trucks are due to be delivered in Tucson by July. And 14 new miles of fencing are under construction in the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas. But questions about just how thoughtfully Homeland Security has deployed resources along the border continue to dog the department.
A few days after the expo, CBP Assistant Commissioner Mark Borkowski stunned lawmakers at a House hearing in Washington when he said that, two years after Homeland Security promised Congress to come up with better measures of border security, he still can’t say when those measures will be ready. What is being called the Border Security Index would include such measures as crime rates along the border, rates of legal crossing and commercial traffic; but it isn’t clear it will be part of any immigration-reform bill.
“We have to get it to a trickle,” said former CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner. “You’ll never get to zero.”
On the same morning Bonner says this, the newest batch of deportees in Nogales eat breakfast at a soup kitchen a few minutes walk from the border. Many will try to cross again within days.
As for Ivan, the youth whom rancher Jim Chilton encountered, the Border Patrol said he was returned to Mexico, but not through Nogales, in coordination with the Mexican consulate in Tucson the next day. Citing privacy issues, neither the Border Patrol nor the consulate would say where he was sent. So as with so many who cross in remote reaches of the border, where he has wound up remains unclear.