What does a ‘secure’ border look like?
(AP) — Once, the mesas and canyons extending east of the Pacific Ocean held the most popular routes for illegal immigrants heading into the U.S. Dozens at a time sprinted across the border into San Diego, passing agents who were too busy herding others to give pause.
Now, crossing would mean scaling two fences, passing a phalanx of agents and eluding cameras.
The difference, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said, is like “a rocket ship and a horse and buggy.”
In pure numbers it is this: Where border agents made some 530,000 arrests in San Diego in fiscal year 1993, they had fewer than 30,000 in 2012.
There is no simple yardstick to measure border security. And yet, as the debate over immigration reform ramps back up, many will try.
“Secure the border first” has become a litmus test for many upon which a broader overhaul is contingent. As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said recently: “We need a responsible, permanent solution” to illegal immigration. But first, added the Florida Republican, “we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders.”
In fact, the 1,954-mile border with Mexico is more difficult to breach than ever. San Diego is but one example.
Two decades ago, fewer than 4,000 Border Patrol agents manned the entire Southwest border. Today there are 18,500. Apprehensions, meantime, have plummeted to levels not seen since the 1970s — with 356,873 in FY2012. Compare that to 1.2 million apprehensions in 1993, when new strategies began bringing officers and technology to border communities. Sensors have been planted, cameras erected, and drones monitor from above.
But for those who live and work along the boundary, “secure” means different things. In Arizona, ranchers scoff at the idea. In New Mexico, locals worry about what’s heading south in addition to flowing north. And in Texas, residents firmly believe that reform itself would finally help steady the flow of people and drugs.
These places have been transformed. Sealed? No. But as one border mayor asked: “How secure is secure?”
SAN DIEGO: From “banzai runs” to Brooks Brothers
Don McDermott spent most of his 21 years in the Border Patrol working the San Diego sector. He remembers the “banzai runs,” when immigrants would storm border inspection booths, scattering as they ran past motorists.
“Hopefully you would catch more people that you saw going past you,” said McDermott, who retired in 2008.
The tide turned when the U.S. government launched “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, bringing 1,000 additional agents to San Diego. They parked their trucks against a rusting 8-foot-high fence made of Army surplus landing mats, and refused to yield an inch.
As apprehension numbers fell, home values skyrocketed. In 2001, an outlet mall opened on the border. It now counts Brooks Brothers and Coach as tenants.
But more than manpower helped curb the problem. In 2009, an 18-foot-high, 14-mile-long steel mesh fence was completed. And a dirt road traversing an area called “Smugglers Gulch” was transformed into a flatter, all-weather artery at a cost of $57 million.
This past year the San Diego sector made fewer arrests than in any year since 1968, with agents averaging 11 arrests each.
“I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it’s a lot more difficult to cross the border here,” said agency spokesman Steven Pitts.
After Gatekeeper, smugglers tried new tactics. They pelted agents with rocks. Or one group would jump the fence to draw agents’ attention long enough for another to try its luck. Human and drug smuggling attempts at sea also have surged. And nearly all of more than 70 drug smuggling tunnels found along the border since October 2008 have been discovered in San Diego and Tijuana, some complete with hydraulic lifts and rail cars.
Still, few attempt to cross here now. As he waited for breakfast at a Tijuana migrant shelter, Jose de Jesus Scott nodded toward a roommate who did. He was caught within seconds.
Scott, who crossed the border with relative ease until 2006, said he and a cousin tried a three-day mountain trek to San Diego in January and were caught twice. With deep roots in suburban Los Angeles and cooking jobs that pay up to $1,200 a week, Scott, 31, will likely try the same route a third time.
“You need a lot of smarts and a lot of luck,” he said. “Mostly luck.
“It’s a new world.”
EL PASO, Texas: Steel bars still up; crossings and crime down
Burglar bars still protect homes in the Chihuahuita neighborhood near downtown El Paso, Texas, a reminder of when immigrant crossers would break in looking for food. Patricia Rayjosa, a resident of Chihuahuita for 18 years, remembers when migrants crossed the border 30, 40, 50 at a time, or waded north across the Rio Grande on tire tubes.
“One morning, as I went out to feed my dogs, I found … wire cutters. I didn’t see them but I could tell they went across my backyard,” said Rayjosa, 53. Now: “It’s not easy to cross.”
In the early 1990s, El Paso ran second to San Diego in illegal immigrants coming north. Then, in 1993, the Border Patrol launched “Operation Hold the Line,” the first of a series of enforcement actions intended to gain “operational control” of the Southwest border.
It was a shift in strategy from apprehending migrants already in the U.S. to preventing entry in the first place. Within months, illegal crossings in El Paso went from up to 10,000 a day to 500, according to a Government Accountability Office report at the time.
Burglaries and car thefts decreased. And, as happened later in San Diego, apprehensions plunged: from nearly 286,000 in 1993 to about 9,700 last fiscal year in the El Paso Border Patrol sector, stretching from West Texas across New Mexico. (Staffing in the sector went from 608 agents in 1993 to more than 2,700 today.)
To El Paso Mayor John Cook, hinging reform to calls for a “secure border” seems absurd given the changes in his city.
“It is as secure as it has ever been. How secure is secure?” he said. “Some people who come with these ideas have no idea. I wish they would come down here and see.”
But you don’t have to drive too far into New Mexico to see problems.
Lordsburg Police Chief Marcus Martinez recalled an incident in January where a hotel manager saw a convoy of vehicles speeding through town. Four cars were eventually stopped — 80 miles north of the border — and 6 tons of marijuana were seized.
But the northbound smuggling of people and drugs is only one problem, said Patrick Green, a local sheriff’s deputy. Guns and money also flow back south. More Border Patrol agents have been dispatched to New Mexico, too, but Green still fears the government will always be behind the curve in combating smuggling.
“If the Border Patrol puts more people in the ground,” he said, “they will take to the mountains.”
MCALLEN, Texas: In bicultural region, residents root for reform
Some 800 miles southeast of El Paso is the Rio Grande Valley, where rapid growth has overtaken sugar cane and cotton fields and sleepy hamlets are now thriving cities. More than 1.2 million people live in this Valley, and a similar number are across the border anchored by the sprawling cities of Matamoros and Reynosa.
Here, illegal crossers can quickly slip into communities without being forced to trek for days through wide-open spaces.
Part of the solution was the 651-mile Southwest border fence, and 400 landowners — most of them in this part of Texas — had property seized to build it. But the fence struck many as an offensive gesture in this bicultural, bilingual region that views itself as one community with its Mexican sister cities.
More effective, locals said, has been the influx of Border Patrol agents — 2,546 in the Rio Grande Valley today, almost seven times more than 20 years ago. And while some still patrol on horseback, others are aided now by night-vision goggles and unmanned Predator drones.
Definitions of a secure border vary here, but there’s agreement that the premise should not stand in the way of immigration reform.
Tony Garza remembers watching the flow of pedestrian traffic between Brownsville and Matamoros from his father’s filling station as a child. During an annual celebration between the sister cities, no one was asked for their papers at the bridge. People were just expected to go home.
Garza, a Republican who served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 2002-2009, said the border is more secure for the massive investment in recent years but feels less safe because the crime has changed. Some of that has to do with transnational criminal organizations in Mexico and some of it is just the crime of a city of more than 200,000.
Reform, he said, “would allow you to focus your resources on those activities that truly make the border less safe today.”
About an hour upriver, Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino points out that drug, gun and human smuggling is nothing new to the border. The difference is the attention that the drug-related violence in Mexico has drawn to the region. He insists his county is safe. The crime rate is falling, and illegal immigrants account for small numbers in his jail.
But asked if the border is “secure,” Trevino doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely not.”
“When you’re busting human trafficking stash houses with 60 to 100 people that are stashed … for weeks at a time, how can you say you’ve secured the border?” he said.
But he added that those people might not be there if they had a legal path to work in the U.S.
Reform, he said, “is the first thing we have to accomplish before we can say that we have secured the border.”
NOGALES, Ariz.: In busiest illegal corridor, ranchers scoff at “secure”
Everywhere he goes on his cattle ranch, Jim Chilton has a gun at the ready. He has guns at his front door, guns in his truck, guns on his saddle. His fear? Coming across a bandit or a smuggler on his land northwest of Nogales, Ariz.
Cattleman Gary Thrasher frequently encounters immigrants running through his property east of Douglas, Ariz., and his family lives in dread. Towns right along the border are secured, he said. The result?
“It sends the traffic right into our backyards.”
The question of border security hits close to home to those in southern Arizona. It was here, in 2010, that cattle rancher Robert Krentz was gunned down while checking water lines on his property near Douglas. Authorities believe the killer was involved in smuggling activity.
That same year, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with Mexican gunmen that brought attention to the federal government’s botched weapons-trafficking probe called “Fast and Furious.”
“The border is not secure,” said Chilton. “Period. Exclamation mark.”
Defining “secure border” in Arizona is never easy. Just last week, as U.S. Sen. John McCain hosted two town hall meetings on immigration reform in the state, one man yelled that only guns would discourage illegal immigrants. Another said illegal immigrants were illiterate invaders who wanted free government benefits.
The crackdowns in Texas and California in the 1990s turned Arizona’s border into the busiest for human smuggling for 15 years running now.
In 2000, agents in the Tucson sector made more than 616,000 apprehensions — a near all-time high for any Border Patrol sector. Then the agency hired more than 1,000 new agents and the economy collapsed. State crackdowns such as the “show me your papers” law are also thought to have driven migrants away.
The result: the sector had 120,000 apprehensions in fiscal 2012.
But the amount of drugs seized in Arizona has soared at the same time. Agents confiscated more than 1 million pounds of marijuana in the Tucson sector last year, more than double the amount seized in 2005.
In Nogales, Sheriff Tony Estrada has a unique perspective on both border security and more comprehensive immigration reform. Born in Nogales, Mexico, Estrada grew up in Nogales, Ariz., after migrating to the U.S. with his parents. He has served as a lawman in the community since 1966.
He blames border security issues not only on the cartels but on the American demand for drugs. Until that wanes, he said, nothing will change.
“The drugs are going to keep coming. The people are going to keep coming. The only thing you can do is contain it as much as possible,” he said. “I say the border is as safe and secure as it can be, but I think people are asking for us to seal the border, and that’s unrealistic.”
Asked why, he said simply: “That’s the nature of the border.”
- Will the Border Ever Be Secure Enough for Immigration Hawks? (theatlantic.com)
- Immigration Reform: El Paso Leaders to Lobby Washington (hispanicbusiness.com)
- Sec. Napolitano tours Arizona border (abc15.com)
- Napolitano: Immigration ‘System As A Whole Is Badly In Need Of Reform’ (houston.cbslocal.com)
- While No One Was Looking, the U.S. Border was Secured (businessweek.com)