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 — with 356,873 in FY2012. 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. In Arizona, ranchers scoff at the idea. In New Mexico, locals worry about what’s heading south in addition to flowing north. And in Texas, residents firmly believe that reform itself would finally help steady the flow of people and drugs.
These places have been transformed. Sealed? No. But as one border mayor asked: “How secure is secure?”
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.
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.
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.
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. Agents averaged 11 arrests each, a change that marvels veterans. Agents today may even pursue just one crosser over several shifts.
Now, other threats have emerged. U.S. authorities identified 210 human and drug smuggling attempts at sea during FY2012, up from 45 four years earlier. A Coast Guardsman died in December when a suspected smuggling vessel struck him.
And nearly all of more than 70 drug smuggling tunnels found along the border since October 2008 have been discovered in the clay-like soil of San Diego and Tijuana, some complete with hydraulic lifts and rail cars. They’ve produced some of the largest marijuana seizures in U.S. history.
Still, few attempt to cross what was once the nation’s busiest corridor for illegal immigration.
El Paso, Texas
Burglar bars still protect many a home in the Chihuahuita neighborhood near downtown El Paso, a reminder of a time when immigrant crossers would break in looking for food or trying to duck the Border Patrol. Carmen Silva recalls those days. At 90, she tells of migrants hiding under cars and in backyards. Now, she says: “Nobody comes through anymore.”
Patricia Rayjosa has lived in the same neighborhood as Silva for the past 18 years. Once, she said, migrants crossed 30, 40, 50 at a time to overwhelm agents standing watch. Others swam across the Rio Grande or waded north on tire tubes.
In the early 1990s, El Paso ran second to San Diego in the number of illegal immigrants coming north. Then, in 1993, the Border Patrol launched “Operation Hold the Line,” the first of a series of enforcement actions intended to gain “operational control” of the Southwest border.
It was a shift in strategy from apprehending migrants already in the U.S. to preventing entry in the first place, and the effect was almost immediate: Within months, illegal crossings in El Paso went from up to 10,000 a day to 500, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 1994 called “BORDER CONTROL: Revised Strategy Is Showing Some Positive Results.”
Burglaries in neighborhoods like Chihuahuita decreased. Car thefts went down. And, as happened later in San Diego, apprehensions plunged: from nearly 286,000 in 1993 to about 9,700 last fiscal year in the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which encompasses 268 miles from West Texas across New Mexico.
To El Paso Mayor John Cook, hinging reform to continued calls for a “secure border” seems absurd given the changes in his city.
“It is as secure as it has ever been. How secure is secure?” he said. “Some people who come with these ideas have no idea.
“I wish they would come down here and see.”
But you don’t have to drive too far into the New Mexico desert to see problems.
Marcus Martinez, the police chief in Lordsburg, N.M., recalled an incident in January where a local hotel manager stepped out to have a cigarette and saw a convoy of vehicles speeding through town. Four cars were eventually stopped — 80 miles north of the border — and 6 tons of marijuana were seized.
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.”
Defining “secure border” in Arizona is never easy. Just last week, U.S. Sen. John McCain hosted two town hall meetings on immigration reform in his home state, and was left defending a plan he’s been developing.
During a heated gathering in the Phoenix suburb of Sun Lakes, one man yelled that only guns would discourage illegal immigration. Another man complained that illegal immigrants should never be able to become citizens or vote. A third man said illegal immigrants were illiterate invaders who wanted free government benefits.
McCain urged compassion. “We are a Judeo-Christian nation,” he said.
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 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 fiscal 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 — 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. “That’s the nature of the border.”