In Arizona, border security in spotlight amid immigration-reform efforts, sequester cuts

By Pamela Constable, Updated: Sunday, March 17, 3:28 PM
The Washington Post

In Arizona, border security proves elusive: New concerns over drug smuggling and violence are being raised by administration critics, immigration officers and some residents.

NACO, Ariz. — With the winter sun’s glare bouncing off his old red pickup, John Ladd drives slowly along the 10-foot wall of iron stakes and steel mesh that crosses his 14,000-acre cattle ranch, dividing his great-grandfather’s land from the Mexican desert but not always keeping intruders out.

“Here’s where the drug smugglers cut through the wall in January,” Ladd says, pointing to a large jagged square in the metal that has since been rewelded. “They use blowtorches and hydraulic grinders. They can get a truck through in minutes, and as soon as they reach the highway they’re gone.”

Ladd’s ranch in the southeastern corner of Arizona is dotted with cameras on stilts, and U.S. Border Patrol trucks cruise the range daily, scattering his Herefords and Angus. Beyond the wall, Mexican soldiers patrol in Humvees. Before it was erected in 2007, illegal migrants constantly camped in his bushes on their way north. These days, fewer make the attempt, but a more sophisticated and dangerous threat has replaced them.

“There’s less people but more drugs,” Ladd says. “The cartels control everything that crosses. The Border Patrol has a huge presence, but it’s not enough, and it’s not the answer. No matter what they say in Washington, the border is not secure.”

The issue of border security — hard to measure but easy to manipulate — has long been a sticking point in the debate over illegal immigration. The Obama administration, hoping to win congressional support for an overhaul of immigration law, increased spending on customs and border enforcement to a record $12 billion in 2012, and it claims to have reduced infiltration of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border to its lowest level in decades.

But now, with the across-the-board sequester cuts expected to take a $500 million bite out of the immigration enforcement budget and cut the equivalent of 5,000 jobs from a Border Patrol force of 21,000 agents, new concerns over border violence and drug smuggling are being raised by administration critics, immigration officers and some *border-area residents.

Back at center of debate

Arizona, a Republican-led border state, has long played an outsize role in the immigration wars. It enacted the nation’s toughest law against illegal immigrants in 2010, has spawned vigilante border-watch groups and has elected officials such as Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, icons of a national movement to seal the border and fight “amnesty” for the undocumented.

Today, as the Obama administration seeks lawmakers’ backing for steps that would legalize millions of undocumented residents, Arizona’s conservative forces are rallying for another fight. This time, they have new ammunition from sequester cutbacks and reports of Mexican drug gangs muscling in on what was once a routine cat-and-mouse game between federal agents and poor migrants.

The new battle pits Brewer against another high-profile Arizona figure, Democratic former governor Janet Napolitano, now U.S. secretary of homeland security. Napolitano insists that the U.S.-Mexico border remains more secure than it has been in years, even as she warned that Border Patrol cuts would leave fewer agents to cover rugged rural areas where most illegal crossings take place. Meanwhile, Brewer has accused the White House of using the sequester for political gain at the expense of public safety.

Asked about Arizona and its most porous border segment, a 120-mile stretch that crosses ranches such as Ladd’s and the north-south highway between Tucson and Nogales, Napolitano asserted that once-heavy illegal traffic there had fallen to its lowest level in years. The government estimates that border-area arrests across Arizona, mostly in the Tucson-Nogales region, dropped 80 percent to 125,000 between 2000 and 2012.

But some members of the border enforcement community charge that officials in Washington have deliberately exaggerated the drop in illegal crossings and unfairly focused budget cuts on their mission. They warn that smugglers of drugs and of humans will take advantage of the sequester, which is expected to reduce thousands of hours of overtime and has already led to the release of hundreds of illegal immigrants from detention.

“The real truth is not getting out. The Border Patrol is only catching 5 percent of what crosses, and they are being told not to report getaways,” charged Zack Taylor, a Nogales resident and leader of the national association of former Border Patrol employees. “Arizona is already a lawless area, and with those cuts in manpower it’s going to be wide open.”

Several law enforcement observers said illegal migrants are starting to cross in larger groups, anticipating a more tolerant U.S. government policy to result from talks in Washington. “The numbers of illegals have really picked up since they heard amnesty is coming,” Taylor said.

Ranchers such as Ladd also remain skeptical of administration claims of success. They often mention violent incidents such as the 2010 shooting death of border rancher Robert Krentz and constantly swap stories of the latest fence cuttings, of drugs being abandoned by couriers and of smugglers using empty barns as hideaways and lookout posts.

Yet now there are voices in Arizona sending different messages on immigration. A growing Hispanic electorate is feeling new muscle, some police officials are disgusted with the state’s polarized politics, and a loose fraternity of liberal business and civic leaders, many of whom benefit from cross-border commerce, is expressing discomfort with extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and the militarization of the border region.

One of those voices belongs to Nan Waldon, a lawyer and horse breeder who co-owns a 7,000-acre pecan farm south of Tucson that employs several hundred Hispanics. In a recent interview, Waldon denounced the controversial 2010 law as a “horrible and racist” measure. The law, the toughest aspects of which were upheld by the Supreme Court last year, requires police to report suspected illegal immigrants to federal officials.

“It’s wrong for people to stereotype Mexicans and Mexican Americans as criminals and drug smugglers and ignore the fact that they are the backbone of our economy,” Waldon said. “Many people in Arizona are still afraid to speak out, but there is a silent majority who have had enough of the rhetoric that plays on the fears of ignorant people.”

Roberto Villasenor, the Mexican American police chief of Tucson, said he worries about the upswing in drug smuggling but complained that the political hijacking of border security has made it much harder to find practical solutions.

“Making the border more secure needs to be a priority, but we keep getting into a political circus, with both sides making outlandish claims to advance their agenda,” Villasenor said wearily. “The issue has been so distorted that whatever you do, the other side screams it is political. Nobody knows what to believe anymore.”

In the border boomtown of Nogales, officials are cultivating close relationships with their Mexican counterparts and business leaders are lobbying for expanded inspection services to speed the passage of Mexican trucks. Industry officials said more than $6 billion in tomatoes, peppers and other produce from Mexico enters the United States each year, nearly half of it through Nogales.

“Things have changed since the last time Congress tackled this issue,” said Doris Meissner, a former federal immigration commissioner and a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The border is not the same place it was five years ago, and the American electoral picture is different. I don’t think the Arizona mind-set is going to have the same traction it had in the past.”

An economic entry point

The scene at Ladd’s cattle ranch, with its stark evidence of severed steel bars and high-
powered invaders, is an ominous prism through which to view the border. But just a dozen miles east, at the busy, legal Port of Entry between Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Mexico, the picture is more complex.

On a gray winter afternoon, hundreds of Mexicans hurried home through narrow inspection lanes after another day in the United States — schoolchildren, mothers with shopping bags, and men returning from long days in a tomato processing plant 80 miles from the border.

Heading through a separate maze of wide northbound lanes were a dozen tractor-trailers carrying refrigerated crates of Mexican tomatoes, peppers and squash to supermarkets across the United States.

To Daniel Ortega, the Mexican American mayor of Douglas, the border is not a menace but a crossroads of commerce and culture. Trade with Mexico provides 80 percent of the town’s commercial revenue, while federal jobs in border-related security have helped revive the community of 18,000 since its once-dominant employer, a copper mine and foundry, shut down in the 1990s.

“Our communities are very dependent on each other,” Ortega said, noting that Douglas is now an official “sister city” with Agua Prieta. He said his main concern is trying to streamline the border inspection process, something that sequester cutbacks could easily derail. “People in the East talk about how bad the border is,” Ortega said, “but here our future depends on it.”

At one point in the afternoon, a barred government bus crossed from Douglas to Agua Prieta and two dozen Mexicans straggled out. Most carried plastic bags labeled “Department of Homeland Security” that contained wadded clothes, water bottles and other remnants of their failed attempts to sneak into the United States.

The little group shuffled into a dingy little building, run by an American volunteer group, which said “Welcome Brother Migrants” in Spanish. Slumped dejectedly in plastic chairs, they said they had been caught soon after crossing into the United States in February, briefly jailed and then bused back to Mexico.

There were couples and *middle-aged men and a weeping woman who said she might never see her children again. All had borrowed heavily to pay guides and protection fees to drug mafias, hoping to reach a construction job in Chicago, a grape harvest in California or a spouse and children in Nebraska.

Gabriel Sosa, a 47-year-old factory worker, said he had paid $2,000 for a guide who led him and two other men to the open border at Naco. The guide told them to climb the 10-foot fence and wait for a cellphone call, then vanished.

“We hid in the grass all night and nobody called. We could hear the cattle nearby,” Sosa said. “It got colder and colder. Finally we decided to walk to the highway, and as soon as we saw a Border Patrol truck we turned ourselves in.”

The thwarted travelers said they knew U.S. penalties for illegal entry were stricter now and that Arizona was especially tough on border crossers. They complained about the fees demanded by the drug mafia, the cold cells in U.S. jails and the dense Border Patrol presence in populated areas that forced them to risk dangerous desert crossings.

Still, all said their desperation to find a job with a living wage was stronger than any of those worries. Asked what would be the best way to stop illegal immigration, several people spoke up at once, saying they would much rather work legally, even for a few months of the year, than endure the expense and hazards of crossing on their own.

“If the Americans want to stop illegal immigration, why don’t they give us work visas?” demanded a young man named Julio, who had paid $2,000 and been caught almost as soon as he crossed into Arizona. “This way we are just bait for the mafia.”

Then he shouldered his plastic bag and followed his companions to the Agua Prieta bus station and the empty-handed trip home.

In Arizona, border security in spotlight amid immigration-reform efforts, sequester cuts - The Washington Post