Flying low along the Mexican line in a Black Hawk helicopter, the United States Border Patrol officer saw surveillance towers rising above the cactus. He saw his agents’ white and green trucks moving among the mesquite, scouting for illegal crossers.
Far overhead, a remotely guided drone beamed images of the terrain to an intelligence centre in Tucson. Pilots cruised in reconnaissance planes carrying radars and infrared cameras that could distinguish a migrant with a backpack from a wild animal from many kilometres away.
Sabri Dikman, the patrol’s executive officer for this region, liked what he saw – and what he did not see. ”In some manner we have the capacity to observe every part of the border of Arizona.”
As the US Congress debates a broad overhaul of the immigration laws, including a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, sceptical politicians are asking if the south-west border is secure enough to withstand any new wave of illegal crossings that might be spurred by a legalisation program, or by new growth in the American economy.
Officers who guard the line say the border is more secure in most places than they have ever known it. They say they are in a strong position to hold off an illegal surge and, to show why, they point to Arizona, once the busiest and most contentious border battlefront.
To the east, in Texas, agents are still struggling to stop persistent migrants in hundreds of kilometres of varying terrain. But in Arizona, every available measure shows steep declines in the number of people making it across, figures that border agents say demonstrate what they can accomplish.
In Congress, many Republicans recall that an amnesty in 1986, which was supposed to solve illegal migration, was followed by an even larger unauthorised influx. But to border officials in Arizona, Congress seems to be behind the times, failing to notice that they have already made many of the enforcement advances that politicians are seeking. Since 2005, the number of patrol agents in the south-west has nearly doubled, to more than 18,000. Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, has built its air wing to more than 260 aircraft.
While tightening the border, officials also created a system of penalties for those who get past it, making it far more likely that migrants who were caught would be jailed, prosecuted as criminals, or expelled from the country far from the place where they tried to enter.
Dikman remembers the bad old days, when the agents’ rule of thumb was to open a formal deportation only after an illegal crosser had been caught and expelled to Mexico 18 times.
Now, Customs and Border Protection is adjusting its strategies to the reality of greatly reduced numbers, but more troublesome adversaries.
Jeffrey Self, the commander of the agency’s Joint Field Command for Arizona, based in Tucson, says migrants rarely attempt to cross these days without hiring a coyote, or smuggler, and those guides were generally linked to narcotics organisations in Mexico. ”It’s pretty much all organised smuggling at this point and it’s pretty much all controlled by the transnational criminal organisations that operate over there,” Self says.