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.
This article appears in the February 18, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.