The argument over U.S. southern border security is highly politicized, hotly contested, and almost always without bipartisan consensus. Building up the border is the proposal many conservative voices on immigration insist is a necessity. However, the further militarization of border towns like Nogales, Arizona—less than an hour from Tucson—poses its own dangers to migrants crossing the brutal Arizona deserts, as well as creates a hostile environment for the residents of the towns just north of the fence.
The Tucson sector of the U.S.-Mexico border has increased the number of Border Patrol agents on the ground, brought in new technology for border check points as well as unmanned drones in the desert, and allowed for apprehension patrols to extend beyond the immediate areas surrounding border towns. With the expansion of border security, however, has come a shift in migration patterns and environment south of the border that poses a severe threat to those seeking better opportunities in America.
Amplified border patrols and new-and-improving technology have improved efficiency to at least some extent in most, if not all, sectors of the border. But it has come at the cost of increased cartel violence as members struggle to move drugs across and resort to using migrants by force rather than give up moving supply. Hopeful immigrants now have to cross in far more remote, severe areas of the desert to avoid both security and cartels, putting them at greater risk for death by environment and violence.
Tougher Security, Fewer Migrants
Eddy, an undocumented immigrant now living in Tucson and with a history of nearly 10 times crossing from Mexico into the U.S., said the security build-up isn’t halting immigration completely.
“That’s not going to stop them,” Eddy said of the increased security technology alone.
But, combined with criminal activity south of the border, immigrants are not hurrying to cross the fences in the same mass numbers of earlier in the decade.
“It’s hard to cross right now,” Eddy said. “There are less people crossing than three years ago [when I had to cross more often].”
Brent Cagen, a border patrol agent in the Tucson sector, said apprehensions of persons crossing the border have decreased significantly over the past decade: fiscal year 2000 recorded 616,000 apprehensions, while 2012 recorded 120,000.
Cagen attributed the decrease in human apprehensions to “far more effective” consequences being used by Border Patrol.
“If you look at the year 2000, we were using a consequence where, basically, we would just return the individual…to Mexico, and they could, in theory, re-cross a short time later,” Cagen said.
He contrasted that to today’s practice: many migrants are now apprehended and put into locations away from Tucson—often Texas and Southern California—and taken back into Mexico from a very different location. The undocumented migrants are then in a region of Mexico where they are not in close proximity to their initial crossing location, which is often near a city with a network of support for their arrival and settlement.
While this may be a deterrent, it is also not a single solution.
The data on apprehensions as reported by Border Patrol do not put into context the number of “got aways”—migrants who successfully made the cross without getting caught.
A report by the Bipartisan Policy Center released in May 2013 said that based on a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, “[E]ffectiveness rates are clearly improving, but…effectiveness rates among sectors are not strictly comparable because data-collection practices were only standardized” in September of 2012.
Per the numbers in the report, the Tucson sector boasted a 2011 effectiveness rate of about 86 percent—meaning overall, the Tucson sector Border Patrol met the goals of securing the border by migrant and drug apprehensions at 86 percent. The “magic number” in many legislative border security proposals is 90 percent. But even being so close to that goal, the Tucson sector had a got aways rate of 13 percent of migrant crossings in 2011—equating to 25,376 migrants who successfully eclipsed Border Patrol.
While much of the national focus could be placed on the number of migrants in versus migrants back out, the issue is further complicated by the growing dangers on the southern side of the fence.
Heightened Border Patrol Increases Cartel Desperation
According to Cagen, undocumented immigrants alone are not the notable threat at the border. Claiming that title are the transnational criminal organizations—the drug cartels mostly operating out of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras whose profits (and increasing power) heavily rely on distribution and sales in the U.S.
The increase in security technology—which includes unmanned drones and agent patrols placed farther into remote desert areas—has forced cartels to adapt quickly the ways in which they move narcotics across the border.
“[The drug cartels] are becoming far more desperate, and their tactics are becoming more desperate as well,” Cagen said.
He recalled a recent “ultra light incursion” the Tucson sector saw that was, essentially, a “lawnmower with wings.”
“A very small, single-engine plane that will fly in, drop the marijuana load, and leave,” Cagen said.
With the fewer human apprehensions, Border Patrol has seen a substantial increase in narcotics seizures, with over one million pounds of marijuana seized by the Tucson sector alone in 2012. According to U.S. Border Patrol Apprehensions/Seizures Statistics for fiscal year 2012, the southwest sector of Border Patrol—which includes the Tucson sector—saw an apprehensions currency value of $5,535,732 in drugs and weaponry.
“We have narcotics under car seats, we have seen narcotics in clothes,” Cagen said of the increasingly common transfer techniques employed by cartels. “We had…an almost 85-year-old woman coming in [across the border] with heroin strapped to her legs.”
The Border Patrol budget for 2012 totaled in at $3,530,994—a significant increase from the 2000 budget of just over one million dollars. With the increasing funds each fiscal year, the technology used by Border Patrol—as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Administration—has expanded from simple fencing and agents to the modern-day drone program, X-ray machines, and even “all-seeing radar systems” originally developed for use in the war in Afghanistan.
Dangers to Migrants Advance Alongside Technology
As security north of the border has stepped up its game and the cartels on the southern side have significantly become more violent to match U.S. technology, immigrants seeking to cross the U.S. border for work, education, or even to flee the cartel violence in their own homes are crossing at points increasingly farther from border towns and metropolitan centers with food, water and shelter.
This push to remote areas of the desert has a fatal effect on immigrants.
The Tucson sector of Border Patrol reported 177 deaths of undocumented immigrants in the desert in 2012, which was the highest recorded rate in the Southwest sector of the country.
The report “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border,” using autopsy data by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office, recorded the approximate death rate in the Tucson sector to have nearly doubled between 2009 and 2012. The study also examined the specific causes of death for autopsies performed between 1990 and 2012, for which 46 percent of causes of death were determined to be exposure, (36 percent of causes of death were deemed “undetermined”).
From the security perspective, Cagen explained that migrants moving to more remote travel areas—both persons who have and have not been intercepted by cartels (and thus often made to transport drugs)—in the desert is a small boost to Border Patrol’s efficiency, but an outweighing danger to migrants.
“It gives us more time [to apprehend migrants during longer travel in the remote areas], but it creates more danger,” Cagen said.
For migrants who are intercepted by cartel members and made to be drug-mules, Cagen said those individuals are being lied to by the cartels as they are taken farther from the border towns, being told Tucson “is only a few hours’ walk.” (As a point of reference, for Eddy, his trek took him three days as an experienced crosser.)
“There is no way an individual can sustain that type of journey,” Cagen explained. “It’s physically impossible to carry [enough] water, especially in this heat.”
And whether it is increased border security, cartel violence, or an intricate combination of both that is changing the migration patterns of undocumented immigrants, the debate remains centered around the prospect of greater buildup.
Law Enforcement Not Distinguishing Between Opportunity Seekers and Hardened Criminals
Many immigrants rights organizations say abuses by Border Patrol, and even ICE and DEA, are only made worse by increased numbers of boots on the ground. Incidents have occurred reportedly regularly in the desert and at border crossing locations. One instance even took place on the southern side of the Nogales-Sonora border, in which one or more Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side shot and killed a 16-year-old boy on the Mexico side of the fence in October 2012.
Arguing against further border militarization, Juanita Molina, director of immigrant rights group Border Action Network, explained that because there are now different levels of crime coming through the border, enforcement agencies must adapt and identify different protocols for different crossing contexts.
“The more we criminalize [migrants without membership in cartels] and put people in the shadows,” Molina explained, “the less they can help us identify those who are in crimes.”