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.”