Sunday, August 05, 2012

U.S. Border Patrol

Not too long after I moved to Arizona six years ago, the apartment complex I lived in invited a member of the U.S. Border Patrol to speak to us. Since I'm a law enforcement junkie and had noted how often I passed Border Patrol vehicles on the highway (something that was very unusual to someone from the Northeast), I was all over this. It made such an impression that I wrote a scene based on this talk in my current novel.

I'd been wondering how current the information I had was, since a lot has changed over the past six years. I did a lot of web searches to update the numbers I used (number of illegal aliens that cross over in the Tucson sector, pounds of drugs seized, etc.),  but I wasn't sure how to update the "flavor" of what the agent had said. People don't read novels to get educated, even though that's sometimes a side effect. People read novels for the emotional experience. Writers need to know their subject intimately enough to create that emotional experience for readers. Fortunately, the Tucson Sisters in Crime chapter invited Agent Simon Keller to give a similar talk to our chapter last week.

The original focus of the agency was on immigration. Even with this focus, ten years ago there were no real penalties for entering the country illegally. It was only after crossing the border 29 times illegally that a person was given a penalty equivalent to a speeding ticket. Today, the first time an illegal alien is caught, (s)he is subject to administrative removal. This means that they are brought before a judge within one to two days, officially sentenced that they are forbidden from entering the United States for five years, and transported to Nogales, Mexico.

 After 9/11, the focus shifted to terrorism. It's not just Mexicans who come over the border illegally. If you're looking for terrorists, you're probably looking for OTMs (Other Than Mexican) from what Agent Keller referred to as "special interest countries." Interestingly enough, a lot of Chinese cross over at Nogales. (China is not a special interest country. I guess life in the United States is more attractive than life in China.)

During the years following 9/11, there was a lot of money available to the Border Patrol. Now, several years into the Great Recession (I refuse to agree that it's over), there's significantly less money to protect our borders. Because of this, the focus has switched from resource-based activities to risk-based activities. The strongest deterrents are placed where there is the highest risk of an illegal alien (the official term) escaping detection.



Nogales is a town that straddles the border between Mexico and the United States. In this urban area, it takes only seconds to possibly minutes for an illegal border crosser to disappear into a neighborhood. In urban areas like Nogales, a fence has been built to keep people from crossing.




 Surrounding the cities, it takes longer for an illegal border crosser to disappear into the desert. In this case, the time factor is minutes to hours. The solid fence isn't necessary. Permanent vehicle barriers are erected as a deterrent.

Further out in the desert, where it can take hours to days for an illegal crosser to evade detection, temporary vehicle barriers can be erected. These have the advantage that they can be moved to wherever the current hot spots are.

Due to these vehicle barriers, Arizona's vehicle theft rate has dropped dramatically. It's not quite as easy for a thief to grab a vehicle from a shopping center parking lot and make a dash over the Mexican border. What are the stolen vehicles used for? To smuggle drugs and people into the United States. Anything that can be done to slow the illegal traffic over the border is a good thing.

In FY 2011, the Tucson Sector accounted for half of all marijuana seizures and half of all arrests of illegal aliens nationwide. While arrests have dropped from 616,000 annually in 2000 to 123,000 in 2011, the amount of drugs continues to increase. There were 240,000 pounds of marijuana seized in the Tucson Sector in 2000. Last year, 1,039,000 pounds were seized. Yes, you read that right. Over one million pounds of marijuana were seized in the Tucson Sector alone in one year. It's unknown how many pounds of marijuana came over undetected.

To end this on a positive note, here is a video from the Yuma Sector of the Border Patrol which shows how much things have improved:


Images:
US Customs and Border Protection Patch: Official logo of a U.S. government agency whose usage is believed to qualify under Fair Use.
Vehicle: By Bill Morrow (Flickr: Border Patrol checkpoint) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Border Fence: By Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde (US-Mexico barrier at Nogales) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Permanent Vehicle Barrier: Posted to flickr by On the White Line at http://www.flickr.com/photos/42406847@N07/6796328472/


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