Monday, March 14, 2005

Despite New Efforts Along Arizona Border, 'Serious Problems' Remain

The New York Times
March 14, 2005
Despite New Efforts Along Arizona Border, 'Serious Problems' Remain

NOGALES, Ariz. - Back in Washington, officials have promised to step up protection against terrorists by securing the borders. But here along a dusty brown expanse of desert, where Border Patrol agents struggle to stem the flow of illegal immigrants by relying on tactics like horseback patrols, underground sensors and helicopters, commanders have yet to achieve what they call "operational control."

"We have had successes," said Kevin L. Stevens, the assistant patrol chief in the Tucson sector. "But we have some gapping areas out there, some serious problems."

The mission has gained new attention in Congress and at the White House because of intelligence reports that operatives of Al Qaeda may try to use this desolate stretch to enter the United States.

Although citing no evidence of such efforts, officials of the Homeland Security Department recently said the agency worried that would-be terrorists might enter the country by drifting in with illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

"The southern border is literally under siege, and there is a real possibility that terrorists, particularly Al Qaeda forces, could exploit this series of holes in our law enforcement system," Representative Solomon P. Ortiz, Democrat of Texas, said at a Congressional hearing.

The Border Patrol has intensified its enforcement efforts in the last year, starting a campaign called the Arizona Border Control Initiative and making surveillance with a "substantial probability of apprehending terrorists" a top priority.

But Border Patrol agents interviewed in February in the Nogales region said privately that the get-tough policy was an all-but-impossible expansion of a nearly hopeless mission.

"Anyone with any determination can still make it into the United States," said an agent who refused to give his name because he feared being fired. "It is all nonsense, all smoke and mirrors."

No one can reliably estimate how many illegal immigrants cross the 6,000 miles of United States border each year. It is certainly more than a million.

The only objective indicator is the number of arrests, which hit 491,771 in 2004 for just the 261 miles of border that make up the Tucson sector. That is up from 139,473 a decade ago, which explains why Arizona had more border captures in 2004 than California, New Mexico and Texas combined, and why special initiatives have begun here.

The effort has had some obvious effects. Border communities like Nogales now experience much less illegal traffic, as well as fewer border-related crimes, the Border Patrol says.

Dozens of migrants still try to cross the border each day. But new digital video cameras scan almost all the border just inside the cities, and sensors have been built into towering steel border barriers that detect when someone climbs them or tries to cut open a hole.

Cameras have even been placed in a sewer between Nogales on the Mexican side and its sister city, Nogales, Ariz.

"We have taken the easiest routes away from them," Chief Stevens said. "Gain, maintain, expand. That's our strategy."

The intense surveillance in the cities, backed by an increase in Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector, where the force has tripled to 2,170 in 10 years, has apparently pushed the illegal movement elsewhere.

The Arizona initiative promised to take the enforcement campaign into the desert - enormous expanses of Indian reservations, environmental conservation areas, cattle ranches and wild stretches of this big sky world. Pilotless aerial vehicles, or drones, were leased, and more motion sensors were installed, as were more sophisticated cameras.

This technology is the start of what the Bush administration hopes will turn into a $2.5 billion investment over five years to install a new generation of surveillance equipment, creating what it calls America's Shield Initiative.

But many frontline agents wonder whether all the spending makes much sense. In the eight months that the drones circled, at a cost of $6 million, they contributed to 1,294 captures, officials said, or less than 0.5 percent of the sector total in the last fiscal year.

"It is a ridiculous waste of money," an agent said. "There are so many more practical items we need. More vehicles, more agents, even new bulletproof vests. And yet they are spending millions on an unmanned reconnaissance vehicle simply to generate good press."

Some aerial reconnaissance is essential because it is only from the air that border runners can be easily spotted. One afternoon in February, a Border Patrol helicopter came upon 30 or so men and women out in the craggy, cactus-dotted hills. Agent John L. Kimmel dipped his helicopter toward the ground, using a loudspeaker and a barrage of noise, dust and bursts of air to nudge the suspects from their hiding spots.

"Get up!" he yelled in Spanish. "Get up!"

Thanks to a quick response by an agent on the ground, most, if not all, of the suspects were rounded up. But even before they were put in patrol wagons, some were probably plotting their next crossings.

Martin Arrendo, 35, was caught while heading from his home in Irapuato, Mexico, to his job in Sonoma County, Calif., where he earns $16 an hour pruning vines or picking grapes, compared with $10 a day at home.

"As soon as they take me back, I will try again," Mr. Arrendo said.

Security officials have been concerned about Qaeda operatives trying to enter the United States even before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The most specific alert about the southern border came last August, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned that Adnan G. el-Shukrijumah, a Saudi pilot sought by the United States as a high-ranking Qaeda leader and who was believed to have examined the New York Stock Exchange for a possible attack, was spotted in Honduras and might try to cross into the United States from Mexico.

In recent months, officials have reported a worrisome increase in the "Other Than Mexican" category of arrests along the southwestern border. That number has reached 41,360 this fiscal year, up more than 100 percent from the same period in 2004. More than 90 percent of those non-Mexicans are from Latin America, Border Patrol officials said.

But last fiscal year, 682 of those caught were designated "special interest aliens" because they came from countries that have active terrorist presences. In some cases, people from Middle Eastern countries, after paying smugglers to help them, have adopted Mexican names in an effort to disguise their identities, the director of the F.B.I., Robert S. Mueller III, told members of Congress in early March.

"It is a tremendous concern to us," Mr. Mueller said. "We're working together to try to identify those smuggling organizations and take them out of business."

Border agents try to identify such migrants by listening carefully to their accents, not an entirely reliable system. Suspects from the "special interest" countries, which include Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, are turned over to other federal agencies for more questioning.

Ultimately, though, most of the non-Mexicans are released in the United States pending deportation hearings and are typically never heard from again, Representative Ortiz said.

Border Patrol officials say that as they intensify surveillance of the desert, migrants and others trying to enter the United States are changing strategies, moving through far southwestern Arizona and New Mexico. Smugglers have been trying to build cross-border tunnels like one found under construction by agents in Nogales in early March.

Various plans have been offered to secure the border. Congress passed a measure late in 2004 that authorized doubling the number of Border Patrol officers in five years, to 20,000, as well as increasing the number of beds for detainees over the five years by 40,000. That would mean that fewer people awaiting deportation hearings would need to be released.

President Bush wants to create a temporary worker program that would legalize the presence of millions of immigrants, perhaps reducing illegal traffic.

For Border Patrol agents, the problem breeds palpable frustration. Chief Stevens said that like soldiers in battle who do not always appreciate the nuances of a wise general's strategy, they must understand that the key is keeping up the fight.

Some agents have grave doubts.

"It seems quite obvious here," one said. "We are not winning this war."