TUCSON, Ariz.—An A-Star helicopter got the radio call at about 9:30 p.m., as it traversed the Ajo Desert, roughly 10 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. “We’re on a group of 13. We’re close to moving in if you guys want to come and play.”
Ground agents of the Homeland Security Department’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection were making their way to a spot where they thought illegal immigrants were hiding. Other agents were stationed on nearby mountains watching their movements with truck-mounted lasers.
“They’re still grouped up there. A bird’s very close by. We’re about 10 minutes out,” one officer reported. As the helicopter neared, now two miles from the border, the radio crackled. “We’ve got runners. We’ve got two lasers [on them]. The A-Star is not far behind. We’re gathering the bodies now.”
“This is going to be fun. I hope we’re not too late,” the pilot said as he banked the helicopter down to a few hundred yards above the ground and began sweeping the sagebrush with a spotlight. It illuminated two Hispanic men emerging from behind a shrub. A uniformed ground agent waved them toward a few others huddled nearby.
The border agents had seven foreigners in their custody, men who hours earlier had climbed over a 24-foot iron fence on the border. The helicopter searched the surrounding area for the rest of the group. “Look under your NVGs,” the copilot instructed, using the acronym for night-vision goggles. “You can see color better. Look for blue jeans, flashes of red. If you see anything, let us know.”
The spotlight revealed some freshly abandoned backpacks, a spooked rabbit, and assorted trash, but no additional people. “Look at all those water bottles. I wish they’d clean them up so they don’t keep catching my eye,” the copilot complained. The helicopter abandoned the search a few minutes later after getting a send-off from a ground agent who was “walking out” the captured men.
Their next stop would be a caged bus taking them to a processing center. Within 48 hours, the border-crossers would probably be formally deported: driven to a port in Texas or California to be sent back to Mexico far from where they crossed over. Border Patrol agents might detain some of them for further investigation.
The roundup was typical for a Tuesday night, a loosely coordinated policing effort akin to cops patrolling a city neighborhood. The agents’ beat is the southern Arizona desert. Their job is to look for people who have crossed from Mexico illegally. When ground sensors, roving lasers, or cameras pick up signs of movement, the agents track their prey on foot, on horses, or in jeeps.
Sometimes they find vehicles stacked to the gills with marijuana. Sometimes they find cattle. Sometimes they stare at sand all day.
RESOURCES, NOT POLITICS
The agents’ day-to-day jobs are far removed from the political battles over border security and immigration that go on in Washington and along the presidential campaign trail. The White House changed hands three years ago, and the immigration stances of some members of Congress may have helped or hurt their election prospects, but the only change that the rank-and-file Border Patrol has seen is a steady influx of resources, technical assistance, and manpower.
When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano left her job as Arizona governor in 2009 to join President Obama’s administration, she identified the Tucson sector as a top border-enforcement priority. It is the area most trafficked by smugglers along the Southwest border. In a National Journal interview last year, Napolitano said that the resources pouring into the region have “never been more extensive, and the president intends to sustain that.”
The buildup dates in part to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the focus of customs and border agencies suddenly morphed from immigration to national security. In 2000, the United States had 9,200 Border Patrol agents. Now it has almost 22,000. The Tucson sector employs about 4,000 agents, twice as many as any of the eight other Southwest sectors. Tucson gets a growing arsenal of tactical and surveillance equipment—everything from Black Hawk helicopters to mounted camera towers to laser-based mobile-surveillance sensors.
Critics, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, all Republicans, say that the Obama administration has failed miserably at controlling the state’s border with Mexico. “With hundreds of thousands of people illegally crossing the border every year, and record drug smuggling and violence, shouldn’t the government be working to completely secure the border?” Kyl queried last year when he and McCain unveiled a proposal to bring 6,000 National Guard troops to the region and add 5,000 Border Patrol agents.
By all appearances, the administration has ignored the governor, as well as Kyl and McCain, instead focusing on its own plan to bolster border security. Last year, Customs and Border Protection launched an unprecedented project—a Joint Field Command center that brings together the agency’s separate divisions (border, ports, and air support) in Tucson, right at the heart of the illegal flow. “With the chaotic border environment that Arizona suffered from in the past, it needed a body that can make decisions on the ground versus them going up to headquarters,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Self, the agency’s top official in Arizona.
Self, like the agents in his command, is fiercely apolitical about immigration, saying that his first duty is to secure the border and win over the residents who are most affected by the trafficking. “In my mind,” he said, “success is actually when you change perception of the citizenry within the state of Arizona.”
The border agents don’t care whether the surge in resources is rooted in public relations. They just view it as a welcome improvement to their jobs. Last year, the agency erected a fence through the cross-border town of Nogales made of thick iron poles, with sharp plates across the top. It replaced a solid metal barrier made of discarded Vietnam War-era landing mats. Before the new see-through fence was installed, smugglers made a game of hiding on the Mexican side and throwing large rocks at Border Patrol vehicles. The veterans called it “rocking.”
“You’d be driving along, and all of a sudden your windshield caves in,” said Mario Escalante, a public-information officer with Customs and Border Protection who has spent 11 years trekking the border. With the old fence, agents on the U.S. side couldn’t see activity on the Mexican side. Smugglers could hole up for hours against the wall and wait for a patrol van to drive by. Once a vehicle was gone, they could toss their drugs over.
Almost overnight, the agents were safer. The new fence eliminated the rocking problem. It forced smugglers to areas farther away from civilization, safe houses, and highways. That gave the agents more time to find and apprehend them. The desert provides few hiding places. If illegal entrants manage to scale the fence inside a city or crawl out of a drain pipe from an underground tunnel, they can disappear in a minute. Out in the wilderness, agents might have a few hours to coordinate a ground apprehension and call for air support. The more remote you are, the longer it takes to run to safety. “We want to get them when they’re asleep, when they think they’re safe,” Escalante said.
CAT AND MOUSE
Federal and local law-enforcement personnel in the Tucson border sector are engaged in a sophisticated surveillance and hunting game with the border-crossers. The agents see no distinction between the people who are smuggling drugs and those coming across in hopes of finding a job and a better life. “The guy that’s crossing people today is crossing dope tomorrow,” Escalante said.
The federal agents and local police are expert trackers, trained to detect any signs of activity along frequently traveled areas. They can identify the types of shoes that illegal entrants are wearing to determine the size of a group or, if they already have apprehended a few, how many might still be at large. They can tell whether the people are in a hurry. Agents use tricks for detecting activity, such as deliberately arranging sticks on well-trodden areas, or desert “roads,” and checking later to see if the display has been disturbed. “There are trails everywhere,” Escalante said. “You’ll know as an agent if you’re tracking dope or people.… If they’re dopers, they’re not going to use the road.”
Agents also drag tires along the dirt thoroughfare that runs parallel to the border fence, a tactic similar to grooming a ski slope. Anyone who crosses leaves easily detectable footprints. Some entrants try to foil the agents by laying blankets over the tire marks. Some even wear “carpet shoes” to mask any identifying characteristic prints.
The Mexican side of Nogales is on higher ground than the U.S. side, which gives smugglers lookout points to observe the Border Patrol and search for weaknesses. Agents are keenly aware that their every move is being watched. “I go home after an eight- or 10-hour shift,” Escalante said. “They can stay up there for weeks. They have all the time in the world.”
Rarely do border-crossers make it across without guides, sometimes called “coyotes,” who charge $1,500 or more a head to shepherd groups of people into the United States. The groups often scatter when agents appear. Scattering is also a useful tactic for drug smugglers, giving them a chance to protect at least some of their load. If it’s a human-smuggling operation, the guides will try to blend in with the passengers to avoid detection.
Smugglers have been known to send scouts into an area where they think a ground sensor is located. If the Border Patrol shows up in that spot to look for the intruder, the smugglers know they’ve correctly identified a sensor. A special team of sensor experts on the Border Patrol constantly moves the equipment. Even the agents patrolling the beat don’t know where the sensors are until one of them is triggered.
LOTS OF COPS, LOTS OF BOSSES
Local police, civilian officials, and federal agents routinely cooperate. Last year, the city of Nogales, Ariz., removed at least a dozen parking meters across the street from the international border fence to thwart a sophisticated tunneling operation in which smugglers parked cars with holes bored in the bottom in a designated spot where the tunnel from the Mexico side ended. “That’s how close we work with Border Patrol. So we took away 18 parking spaces, knowing that we could lose $8,000 to $10,000 in parking revenue in that year,” said Mayor Arturo Garino.
The enforcement logistics are complicated. Federal agencies in the region include Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security Department’s interior immigration-enforcement agency, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration, and the FBI. The active smuggling areas span at least three counties that have a variety of government structures and political leanings. (Nogales is a Democratic haven. Pinal County, north of Tucson, is more Republican.) Border missions also take place on the Tojono O’odham Indian Reservation, which lies to the west of Nogales, so tribal leaders are involved as well. The Border Patrol’s pilots must maneuver around a no-fly zone dictated by the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Local and federal officers alike shrug at this potpourri of law enforcement, saying that it creates no confusion on the ground. Lt. Matthew Thomas of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, a regional SWAT team officer, was recently assigned to a task force tracking smugglers in the county’s Vekol Valley, a known drug route. On a bright February morning a few days into the operation, Thomas casually deliberated with federal officers over cell phones about which of their three agencies would be in the best position to conduct “knock-and-talk” interviews at some of the homes in the area. “We all have different operating rules,” Thomas said. (The Border Patrol assumed the task.) At the same time, Thomas had his police radio tuned to a Bureau of Land Management agent tracking a suspected drug vehicle through a neighboring valley. If the federal agent got close, Pinal County police would back him up.
Tactics constantly evolve on both sides of the border. As crossing has become more difficult, agents in the Tucson sector are apprehending fewer illegal entrants. They are concentrating on the remainder, but the diehard crossers are getting better at dodging them. Still, the overall reduction in border crossers and law enforcement’s increased agility signifies that Customs and Border Protection is doing something right.
“We’ve had about a 41 percent reduction of traffic over the last year, and that’s as a result of the continued resourcing, the technical, tactical infrastructure, personnel. But it’s also as a result of the fact that we’ve gotten a lot better at understanding our capabilities, understanding the critical capabilities of the adversary,” Self said. “We’ve got a lot of dedicated young men and women out there, and they go out there, and they put it on the line every day. And they’re only going to get more mature. It’s a young workforce right now. They’re going to get better at what they’re doing.”
OPERATION DESERT POLITICS
The Border Patrol’s evolving sophistication is almost completely independent of the political battle over immigration that has paralyzed policymakers. Congress has been unable to act on all but the most trifling legislation since a massive overhaul measure, which would have given undocumented immigrants already in the United States a chance to earn green cards and citizenship, died in the summer of 2007. Critics say that such legalization programs should not even be on the table until the United States can substantially stop the illegal inflow of immigrants and drugs.
Arizona’s Legislature decided it couldn’t wait for the federal government to act and passed a harsh law to crack down on illegal immigration in the state. The statute has garnered national attention, several court challenges, and, most recently, a heated exchange between Brewer and President Obama.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu’s loyalties are divided. The chief law-enforcement officer of a county some 70 miles north of the border fiercely defends the Border Patrol agents who work hand in glove with his officers. “We work famously locally with [Customs Enforcement], with the Border Patrol,” he said.
But Babeu also harshly criticizes the Obama administration’s border-security efforts. “It’s just the people up top that I truly believe are all screwed up,” he said in an interview. He believes that Obama and Napolitano are “lulling the American people into a false sense of security” when they tout the administration’s record deportations and contraband seizures.
Babeu has political reasons for lobbing rhetorical bombs. He is running in the Republican primary for the U.S. House seat in Arizona’s newly created 4th Congressional District; his central campaign theme is that the government needs to do a lot more to secure the border. Babeu was instrumental in developing the McCain-Kyl plan to add troops and resources to the region. He defends his proposal to build 700 miles of double-barrier corrugated iron fence by noting the success with a similar barrier in the Yuma border sector, where he was tactical commander in 2006. That fence reduced crossings by more than 75 percent. “This is what a secure border looks like,” he said. “So we should use that as a proof of concept.”
In a state fiercely divided over immigration, the issue will be critical to Babeu’s election prospects. It has already borne results. He is 10 points ahead of his GOP opponents, who will square off in a primary election in August. His statements infuriate officials at Customs and Border Protection, prompting a lot of eye rolling among field agents. Babeu is unpopular in Santa Cruz County, the Democratic stronghold where Nogales is located.
Residents say that immigration hard-liners like Babeu and McCain are using their town as a backdrop for their own political purposes. Nogales is where McCain filmed his 2008 “Complete the Danged Fence” presidential-campaign ad, which featured Babeu. “He and Senator McCain walked the border here on McCain’s campaign, using our border, using our city for their political gain,” said Mayor Garino, a Democrat. “Then, people have fear of coming to Nogales.”
The political back-and-forth can get ugly. Garino publicly sneered at Babeu for referring to himself as a border sheriff, noting that Pinal County is 70 miles north. Babeu accused Garino of drinking “the Kool-Aid of Janet Napolitano” when Garino insisted that the border is secure and Nogales is safe. Garino now proudly displays a plastic Kool-Aid bottle in his office.
Nogales hosts the biggest border crossing in a state through which 24 million people and 375,000 commercial trucks enter the country annually. (In winter months, those trucks carry most of the produce consumed in the Western states.) The U.S. side of Nogales, population 20,000, relies heavily on tourism from both sides of the border. The Mexican side is home to 250,000 people, many of whom cross over daily to shop.
The town’s residents fiercely dispute Babeu’s assertion that military troops are needed along the border. Garino says media photos of National Guard troops on a lookout harm his city’s image. “In the background is Nogales.”
Olivia Ainza-Kramer, who runs the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, said that troops on the border send the wrong message about a town in which more than 20,000 people come and go every day, contributing to the local economy. “We know we have federal agents. We know we have police officers here, etc. That’s different than having a perception of a soldier; that’s how we see it. Right now, if they bring the National Guard, it’s going to be a little bit intimidating,” she said. “The perception would be different.”
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Conservatives say that troops are needed at the border because the border-protection agency is too lenient with those it captures. Babeu maintains that the agency cannot recover trust because of its past practice of returning some border-crossers to Mexico without further consequence. President Bush put the kibosh on the so-called catch-and-release practice, also called “voluntary removal,” in 2006, but critics still lambast the current White House about it.
Under the old policy, agents released some aliens inside the United States on their own recognizance to appear at later court dates; many never showed. Also, some captured aliens were “voluntarily removed” to Mexico with nothing in their records but a bookkeeping reprimand, the equivalent of a parking ticket. It’s true that some illegal crossers are still offered that option for humanitarian reasons, but it is not the default practice, as it was in the beginning of the Obama administration. As recently as December, Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused the administration of releasing illegal immigrants into the United States. “You will not see a catch-and-release program like this administration has today, where people … are caught who are illegally in this country and because they haven’t been caught in a violent situation, they’re released, released into the general population,” he said during a Republican presidential primary debate.
Perry was wrong on a number of fronts. For Mexican nationals, the voluntary-removal practice never involved freeing undocumented immigrants inside the United States; they were sent back to Mexico. Before 2006, many border-crossers of non-Mexican dissent were released in the U.S. for later court dates, simply because detention facilities were full.
Both were bad policies. Then and now, Homeland Security officials rightly note that voluntary removals did nothing to deter crossings. In fact, border agents sometimes encountered the same crossers in a single eight-hour shift. Now, to counter recidivism, those captured are frequently sent to areas hundreds of miles from where they crossed. The tactic isn’t foolproof. Border Patrol officials acknowledge that the smuggling cartels can adapt quickly and find their men, but it is one of several changes the administration has implemented to impede their operations. Babeu and other critics say that it isn’t enough.
The Obama administration has responded to critiques with harsher penalties for illegal entrants. Now, some 90 percent of those apprehended in Arizona are placed into a new and pointedly named “consequence delivery system.” The program assigns ascending levels of punishments to illegal border-crossers. Voluntary removals are now reserved only for humanitarian purposes and for people who don’t pose an obvious threat (children, pregnant women, the elderly).
Importantly, the 90 percent receive formal deportation notices, making them ineligible for any type of visa for five years. If the deportees are caught again, they are more likely to face criminal charges or do jail time before being returned to their home countries. They also are banned from any legalization process for at least 20 years. Those who have a record of other crimes in the U.S. could face prison terms from 10 to 20 years.
These tougher policies have prompted criticism from a humanitarian perspective. The harsh consequences of deportation are a sore spot for advocates who say that the hard-core laws split up law-abiding families. It is not uncommon for undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens, who if not picked up would qualify for green cards, to find themselves deported to their countries of origin with orders not to return for a decade. The federal government’s dramatic increase in formal deportations means that the people who cross the border just to find work have a permanent mark against them if they are caught.
That’s exactly the point, according to Customs and Border Protection’s Special Operations Supervisor Donna Twyford, who runs the Tucson Coordination Center where 90 percent of the foreigners caught in Arizona are processed. “We are trying to provide multiple layers of effect,” she told National Journal. “We want to impress on their psyche” that they have broken the law. Part of that message comes through showmanship. The Tucson center has a courtroom and a full-time immigration judge who gavels daily “quick court” sessions dressed in full robes for some of the people being deported. They admit under oath that they entered the country illegally. “It makes an impression,” Twyford said.
The most common punishment for illegal entrants in Arizona is a formal removal in which they are transported to border crossing in California or Texas, far from where they crossed into the United States. About 43,000 aliens met that fate in Arizona last year. “We want to try to break the smuggling cycle,” she said. “To smugglers, aliens are a commodity. We take that commodity [from there] and put it over here.”
Twyford showed NJ the record of a typical candidate for the Alien Transfer Exit Program: a male who was caught twice in the same month in 2005. He was captured twice again last year, once in January and once in July. After his last apprehension, he was formally deported. Agents on site said he was typical of those who come through the center, with multiple crossings but no other criminal record.
For illegals believed to be higher up in the smugglers’ pecking order, the Border Patrol conducts full-fledged prosecutions. Those who enter the country through highly trafficked “zero-tolerance” zones or have records of drug or human smuggling can serve 30 to 180 days in jail before being deported. Those with drug or other criminal convictions are referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Last year, almost 26,000 illegal entrants in Arizona were tried under these circumstances. The minimum charge was criminal entry; nearly 10,000 faced more serious charges.
Bolstered resources and improved technologies have made it easier for Customs and Border Protection to be more deliberate—and, in some cases, harsher—about the fates of illegal entrants. In the past, an alien’s identifying information mostly came from interviews and a few scattered records. Now, each processing terminal has electronic fingerprint readers. Using consolidated databases that began in the previous administration, an agent can pull up records within a few minutes.
The Tucson Coordination Center is a hub of activity. Last year, it processed more than 100,000 foreigners. The buses that deport them run daily on a schedule. “Just like Greyhound,” Twyford quipped. The turnover is quick. People usually cycle through within 48 hours. The Tucson agents are less busy than they were several years ago, though. Twyford said that the decrease in apprehensions has allowed them to refine their investigative techniques. For example, agents now have more time to interview border-crossers privately to ferret out higher-level smugglers.
Illegal entrants all are treated initially as potential criminals—albeit, criminals with human needs. Even before they arrive at the processing center, they are searched for weapons or contraband. Cheese crackers and juice boxes are available every four hours. Men are separated from women, but families with children are allowed to remain together. Hot food, usually hamburgers, is offered every eight hours; non-beef-eaters get chicken sandwiches or salad.
Upon arrival at the center, they undergo another search in a secure holding area. Agents take their belongings in the manner of airport baggage checkers. If the bags don’t contain drugs or other contraband, they are returned to their owners when they leave—minus any U.S. money. Border-crossers hide their valuables in clever places, in part to guard against robbery in the desert. NJ observed one search in which a young man removed several $10 and $20 bills from inside the collar of his polo shirt.
SPARRING OVER SEPARATE PROBLEMS
No one disputes that the country’s byzantine immigration system is badly in need of change, but the stark disagreement about what kind of change has halted any progress toward national reform. Arizona and some other states are screaming for more assistance with smuggling and are cracking down on illegal immigration on their own. At the same time, human-rights advocates are battling intractable deportation laws that can ensnare otherwise legitimate candidates for U.S. citizenship.
It is not uncommon for politicians to conflate the criminal challenges of illegal immigration with the legal dilemmas facing immigrant families or the businesses that rely on foreign labor. In fact, they are two separate policy problems. The current population of undocumented immigrants employed in low-skilled jobs is far removed from the human and narcotics smuggling along the Southwestern border. Illegal foreigners who have been in the country for years are far less likely to be apprehended than those tracked down in the Arizona desert.
Along the border, the story is about crime. Most of the aliens caught by the Border Patrol have past records of illegal crossings and are at least a small part of some kind of smuggling operation. The dramatic increase in deportations nationally is a direct result of the federal and state crackdowns in border areas to combat those crimes.
Conservative members of Congress have harshly criticized the Homeland Security Department for aiming its enforcement at the illegal entrants who pose a threat to national security rather than illegal immigrants as a whole. Napolitano has repeatedly reminded lawmakers that the government does not have infinite resources and that terrorists and criminals should take priority. The administration also has heeded the budget-cutting calls of Republicans in Congress and declined to ask for significant budget increases for border protection.
Sheriff Babeu scoffs at the budget excuses. “Do you know what [Napolitano] said to me directly? That Congress is into cutting. They’re not going to fund this.… When on earth has she become this fiscal conservative, saying that we’re not going to pay for this?”
Of course, Babeu knows that he will face the budget pressures if he finds himself in Congress next year, because the GOP will continue to insist on offsets for any government spending. The border fence he wants costs roughly $4 billion. Babeu says he is in a unique position to advocate for his proposal; he has considerable street cred because of his extensive on-the-ground experience both as a border enforcer and as the sheriff of a county known for its drug routes.
Babeu offers one point of view. Nogales’s Garino offers a completely different one. They talk past each other, often through the media. Each shows palpable frustration that the other does not hear him.
“I told [Babeu] that if he was so interested in getting 6,000 soldiers along the border of Nogales, that he could put them between [the Tucson area] and Pinal County,” Garino said. “And maybe let’s see how their residents feel, and let’s see how the property value drops and see how many people will visit their state, because it’s surrounded by soldiers.”
The men are textbook examples of very different sides of the immigration story. Both sides hold some truth. The story is about crime, but it is also about commerce and international relations. It is about playing high-tech spy games against smuggling rings, but it is also about dealing with human beings who are desperate enough to attempt a dangerous entry into the United States.
The agents on the border, meanwhile, are adept at tuning out the arguments. “We look at it as organized crime,” Escalante said. Their viewpoint is understandable; they routinely carry assault rifles, and the evidence room often contain 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of marijuana. (Even the surrounding offices reek of pot.)
Self says he can’t worry about the critics, many of whom don’t have the full picture of what he and his Border Patrol agents are doing. “I can’t let me or my people get focused on the immigration battle. Regardless of political climate, our mission will never change. My job is to focus on bringing border security to the nation.”
This article appears in the February 18, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.