What does a ‘secure’ border look like?
FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2012 file photo, cotton farmer Teofilo Flores drives his truck along the U.S.-Mexico border fence that passes through his property in Brownsville, Texas. The fence along this section of the border divided people from swaths of their own land, but also struck many as an offensive gesture in this bicultural, bilingual region. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2009 file photo, a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle sits parked in front of a crowd of people peering through the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Border Field State Park in San Diego. At one time, before the enhanced border fence in the area, the San Diego area held the most popular routes for illegal immigrants heading into the U.S. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
Once, the barren mesas and shrub-covered canyons that extend east of the Pacific Ocean held the most popular routes for illegal immigrants heading into the U.S. Dozens at a time sprinted to waiting cars or a trolley stop in San Diego, passing border agents who were too busy herding others to give pause.
Now, 20 years after that onslaught, crossing would mean scaling two fences (one topped with coiled razor wire), passing a phalanx of agents and eluding cameras positioned to capture every incursion.
The difference, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on a recent tour, 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 not just a popular mantra whenever talk
turns to reform, but a litmus test for many upon which a broader overhaul is contingent.
“We need a responsible, permanent solution” to illegal immigration, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is working to develop a reform plan, said in his State of the Union response this month. “But first,” he added, “we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
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. Some 651 miles of fence have been built, most of that since 2005.
Apprehensions, meantime, have plummeted to levels not seen since the early 1970s e_SEnD with 356,873 in 2012. Compare that to 1.2 million apprehensions in 1993, when new strategies began bringing officers and technology to border communities in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Now sensors have been planted, cameras erected, and drones monitor the borderlands from above.
But for those who live and work in communities along the international boundary, “secure” means different things.
From ‘banzai runs’ to
Don McDermott spent most of his 21 years in the Border Patrol working the San Diego sector. He remembers the “banzai runs,” when hordes of immigrants would storm inspection booths at one international crossing, scattering as they ran past startled motorists.
Back then, migrants crossed with audacity – even played soccer on U.S. soil as vendors hawked tamales and tacos. The “soccer field” was too dangerous to patrol, so agents positioned themselves a half-mile out, waiting for nightfall when groups would make a run for freedom.
“Hopefully you would catch more people that you saw going past you,” said McDermott, who retired in 2008. “You caught who you could and knew they would be back before the night was over.”
The tide turned when the U.S. government launched “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, modeled on a crackdown the previous year in El Paso, Texas. The effort brought 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. They called it “marking the X.”
As apprehension numbers fell, home values skyrocketed. In 2001, an outlet mall opened right along the border. It now counts Brooks Brothers, Polo Ralph Lauren and Coach as tenants.
More than manpower helped to shut down the path into San Diego. An 18-foot-high steel mesh fence extending roughly 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean was completed in 2009, with razor wire topping about half of it. A dirt road traversing an area known as “Smugglers Gulch,” which border agents had to navigate slowly, was transformed into a flatter, all-weather artery at a cost of $57 million.
This past year the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector, which covers 60 miles of land border, made fewer arrests than in any year since 1968.
“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.
Few attempt to cross what was once the nation’s busiest corridor for illegal immigration. 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 and badly injured his legs jumping the fence. 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 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.”
The nation’s busiest
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 pickup truck, guns on his horse’s saddle. His fear? Coming across a bandit or a smuggler on his land northwest of Nogales, Ariz.
Cattleman Gary Thrasher frequently encounters immigrants and smugglers running through his property. Some have showered in his barn. He and his family live in constant dread.
“They really have secured the towns right along the border, but what that does is it drives all the traffic out into the rural areas around here,” said Thrasher, a rancher and veterinarian for more than 40 years on the border east of Douglas, Ariz. “It sends the traffic right into our backyards.”
The question of border security hits close to home to those who work the land 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. Local authorities have said they believe the killer was involved in smuggling either humans or drugs.
That same year, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout near Nogales 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.”
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. The number eventually began dipping as the agency hired more than 1,000 new agents and the economy collapsed. State crackdowns such as the “show me your papers” law – requiring the police enforcing other laws to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally – are also thought
to have driven migrants
away. The result: the sector had 120,000 apprehensions in 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. And securing the border, he added, must be a constant, ever-changing effort that blends security and political support e_SEnD because the effort will never end.
“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.
“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,” he said.
Asked why, he said simply: “That’s the nature of the border.”