Border Patrol grows as seizures drop

With apprehensions at 39-year low, Congress may double agents in what residents say feels like a 'militarized zone'

A Border Patrol agent monitors the fence dividing the U.S. and Mexico in Nogales, Ariz.
John Moore/Getty Images

NOGALES, Ariz. – For Marty Ethington and Catherine Born, summer interns working on immigration issues with a community organization, the helicopters routinely swooping over their heads are one striking aspect of life in this dusty border city.

“Last week, four helicopters came right over the roof, so low the house was shaking. I’m not sure what they were looking for, but you definitely knew they were there,” said Ethington, 26, an intern with the Santa Cruz Community Foundation. The volunteer agency based in Arizona's Nogales partners with grassroots organizations in Mexico's Nogales Sonora, just on the other side of the towering, rust-colored steel fence that undulates over the rocky hills and desert ravines between the two cities, marking the U.S.-Mexico border.

Born, his 23-year-old colleague, has also been startled by those clattering choppers.

“I grew up in the Bay Area, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” she said. “Sometimes you suddenly feel these helicopters buzzing right overhead, and you look up to see who it is.”

It’s the U.S. Border Patrol.

The agency, whose ranks have swollen fivefold to more than 21,000 agents since the early 1990s, is an imposing fact of life in border regions such as Nogales, a desert town of about 20,000 residents at the southern end of Interstate 19, 60 miles from Tucson.

Many residents complain that the area, even as far as 25 miles from the border, feels like a “militarized zone,” and it could see another doubling in the number of agents as Congress considers an immigration reform bill that would spend an additional $46 billion there -- despite the fact that Border Patrol apprehensions in 2011, the most recent data available, reached their lowest point since 1972 (PDF).

Beyond the border

The daily routine in the area is marked by the visibility of armed Border Patrol officers, on foot or in their green-and-white vehicles, emergency lights flashing as they respond to reports of undocumented migrants who have managed to climb over, and in some cases tunnel under, the metal border fence. That barricade -- part of nearly 700 miles of fence between the U.S. and Mexico -- reaches 20 feet in height through most of downtown Nogales.

While most residents support aggressive measures to control illegal immigration and drug smuggling, and most say agents in town are typically polite, “we do live with a large community of armed guards here -- and if you double that number, they’re going to be tripping over each other,” said William N. Neubauer, 70, a retired surgeon who owns a 10,000-acre cattle ranch that sprawls through scrubby hills just off Interstate 19, about 10 miles north of town.

In addition to nearly 20,000 more agents, the immigration reform proposal includes vast new spending on fencing and a new wave of high-technology sensors, aerial drones, radar and other sophisticated surveillance and detection equipment. This proposed new spending comes at the same time that it appears fewer people are attempting to cross the border -- perhaps due to poor job prospects in the United States. Border Patrol apprehensions fell to 340,252 in 2011, down from a peak of nearly 1.2 million in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Border Patrol’s visibility stretches well beyond the border itself. Along I-19 about 25 miles from Nogales, there is a large Border Patrol checkpoint where northbound traffic must halt under a high hangarlike canopy. Armed agents with drug-sniffing dogs wander along the backed-up cars and trucks, while other agents inspect vehicles and question drivers about their citizenship. Anyone deemed questionable is pulled aside for more intensive secondary inspection.

Last summer, agents ordered a frail Mexican-American man out of the car in which he was being driven from his home in Nogales, Ariz., to Tucson for a party celebrating his 96th birthday. He was detained for nearly 30 minutes of questioning in 100-degree heat because a checkpoint sensor had detected what the Border Patrol later said was “a trace of radiation” from the vehicle. The man was Raul Castro, a former U.S. ambassador who was governor of Arizona from 1975 to 1977. The ex-governor’s implanted pacemaker had evidently triggered the false alarm.

Economic impact

The I-19 checkpoint -- one of the busiest of more than 30 Border Patrol checkpoints on roads in the Southwest, many miles away from the border itself -- is a cause of more than just annoyance, said Neubauer. Tourism in towns such as Tubac, a shopping and arts center about 4 miles south of the checkpoint, is also affected.

“You used to see busloads of tourists coming down here, but that’s fallen way off,” Neubauer said. “Canadian tourists especially got tired of being hassled at the checkpoint because if they don’t have the right documentation with them they’re in deep stuff.”

Residents of nearby communities complain that the checkpoint, which opened in April 2010, also hurts real estate values -- a claim supported by an analysis of real estate data last summer by the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona.

“The I-19 checkpoint is having a negative impact on residential real-estate prices,” said the report, which also cites local concerns that the checkpoint “creates a military atmosphere that is intimidating to people going through it.”

Even away from the I-19 corridor, there is similar unease about the pervasive Border Patrol presence. In Patagonia, a sleepy mining town in a mountain valley northeast of Nogales, agents looking for undocumented Mexicans are a daily sight.

“We’re 15 miles from the border, but there is a prolific amount of Border Patrol activity -- vehicles driving through town at high speeds, or stopping people on back roads arbitrarily,” said Abby Zeltner, the town librarian.

“They seem to have this assumption that they’re the law, and that’s it,” added an associate, Faye Finley.

William Risner, a Tucson lawyer and activist who represents the family of one of several youths who have been shot in recent years by Border Patrol agents, holds a harsher view of the agency.

“Over the years there has been a tremendous change of attitudes, an impudence, in the Border Patrol,” Risner said.

The Border Patrol did not respond to several attempts over a number of days for comment.

Measure of success

A Border Patrol agent flies over the U.S. and Mexico border above Havana, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

Still, the agency’s stated goal of deterring illegal immigration appears to be working.

The decades-long efforts have yielded success, if success is defined by the sharply decreasing numbers of people apprehended each year for illegally crossing into the United States from Mexico. In the Tucson sector, which stretches for 260 miles, apprehensions of undocumented border crossers were 120,000 in the 2012 fiscal year, down from 123,285 in 2011 -- and down dramatically from the peak of 616,346 in 2000, according to Border Patrol data.

The Tucson sector, which includes Nogales, is by far the largest and most aggressively policed. But through all of the rugged Southwest borderlands, apprehension numbers indicate that illegal migration is down significantly. In the San Diego sector, for example, apprehensions were 28,461 in 2012, down from 42,447 in 2011 and 565,581 in the peak year, 1992. The only recent increases have been in sectors like the Rio Grande Valley in Texas -- up 65 percent to 97,243 in 2012 from the previous year, partly because highly concentrated enforcement in Arizona has funneled some illegal migration eastward into Texas.

But the intense concentration of Border Patrol enforcement in urbanized, high-traffic areas like Nogales continues to have one tragic side effect, pushing some illegal migration into less aggressively patrolled desert wildernesses stretching west of Nogales. There, growing numbers of desperate migrants, typically exploited by criminal “coyote” smugglers, die trying to walk through brutal, sun-blasted terrain to Tucson or even to far-off Phoenix.

In the 2012 fiscal year, even while overall illegal migration was dropping, the Border Patrol reported 463 migrant deaths (an increase of about 25 percent from 2011) on the Southwest border -- 70 percent of them in the Tucson and Rio Grande sectors.

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