By Vianney Cardenas/El Inde
Despite the ups, downs and sharp turns, Arizona-83 between Interstate-10 and Sonoita is a unique and enjoyable ride. Flat desert terrain gives way to rolling hills studded with trees, brush and grasses along the scenic highway.
Also present are the Border Patrol vehicles that begin to appear where a tent and bright orange traffic cones mark the Sonoita U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint. Approximately eight white-and-green 4×4 Border Patrol trucks are parked on the side of the road as several agents in olive green uniforms stand together, watching the vehicles pass.
There are approximately 11 border checkpoints in the Tucson sector, which covers 262 miles of the southwest border, one of the busiest in the region. They are used by Border Patrol to deter migrants and smuggling activities that have made it to the United States.
Additionally, there are nine Border Patrol stations located in Casa Grande, Tucson, Nogales, Why, Willcox, Sonoita, Bisbee, Douglas, and Three Points, where agents monitor the activity occurring out on the field, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The small Sonoita checkpoint is approximately 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales. While the border fence is in close proximity to the checkpoint, many Border Patrol agents in Sonoita don’t see it as the most important asset for detecting and apprehending migrants. To Border Patrol agents, border enforcement technology is a main factor in making apprehensions.
“We utilize the fence as a tool, we know people can jump over it, we know people can dig underneath it,” said Border Patrol agent Daniel Hernandez. “A lot of people think Border Patrol relies on the fence to keep somebody in or out. We don’t. We utilize it to buy us time.”
Whether it be camera towers, scanners, ground sensors and radar systems, these technology products, which were first implemented in the 1980s and 1980s, might be the biggest and most successful tools ever used by the Border Patrol, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In the past, Border Patrol agents were sent out to hilltops with only a set of binoculars to look for migrant activity. Today’s technology can do the same work as an agent, if not more, according to Hernandez. With just the camera towers alone, there are around 20 different angles that can pick up movement within a six mile radius.
Ground sensors were used for many years, but Border Patrol is currently phasing them out and integrating more camera-based technology, said Joseph Curran, a Border Patrol agent of the Tucson Sector Strategic Communication branch.
There are several different types of camera towers, some which are used in urban areas and some in rural, rugged, isolated areas. Some of the towers carry high definition cameras that can pick up clear features in order to identify a subject; others are used for radar surveillance, and others are mobile camera towers that can be placed in the back of a Border Patrol truck and stationed in areas where there is an influx of traffic or activity. When the sensors detect any movement from something or someone nearby, they immediately alert Border Patrol dispatch agents.
“Dispatch analyzes what caused the camera to go off and if appropriate, sends an agent to investigate,” Curran said. “The Border Patrol wants the right response to the right incursion. The ability to see what is on camera in real time can best help us do that.”
This technology has helped agents become aware of the activity that occurs in their area and has played a part in alerting agents to assist migrants in distress, according to Curran.
Migrants traveling north come from many countries around the world: El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba and Russia, to name a few. Many of the migrants travel with their families and children, and most are fleeing instability, persecution and violence, hoping to find refuge in the United States. Sometimes, they get into trouble along the way.
“I have also seen many occasions in which migrants who are lost start small fires which are detected by Border Patrol technology,” said Curran.
Migrants may start small fires in the desert to alert anyone nearby that they are present and in need of help. Many times, they do so just for Border Patrol to see. In these cases, it’s a matter of life and death, but survival often means imprisonment.
In areas where there is migrant activity, Border Patrol also leaves rescue beacons out on the ground which migrants can activate whenever they are in distress.
“When activated, Border Patrol agents provide a swift and definitive response to the migrants in need of help,” Curran added.
Yet despite all the gear and technology in use, there is always a small chance that the enforcement technology can fail or make false detections, according to Curran. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted in March 2018 shows that Border Patrol “has not yet used available data to determine the contribution of surveillance technologies to border security efforts.”
The Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), a 2006 plan to implement cameras, scanners and towers along the border, failed after the GAO reported several problems with the technology. Cameras weren’t picking up clear images, sensors and radars were making false detections and the environment didn’t allow for the products to work successfully. Approximately $1 billion went into this program, according to the May 2011 report.
Over the years, technology around the world has advanced immensely. With that, border enforcement technology has improved as well, boasting better quality, software and tools to fulfill its purpose. Additionally, the Border Patrol has hired agents who are experienced with the technology being used.
While many still doubt the effectiveness of the technology equipment used by Border Patrol, agents out in the field think otherwise.
“The only negative I would consider is the possibility that technology can fail,” Curran said. “Although unlikely, there is always the possibility.”
Several of the checkpoints in Arizona are located near small towns, where nearby residents must pass through no matter where they go — grocery stores, banks, or to visit their family members.
When a temporary checkpoint on Interstate-19 was made permanent, residents and merchants in Green Valley and Tubac protested the decision, according to the Green Valley News.
That Tubac checkpoint is the largest in the state. The large white canopy covering the returning highway can be seen from miles away, especially at night, when the bright lights illuminate the area and blind your eyes.
Closer to the structure, there are many agents and K-9 dogs present to patrol the vehicles that are coming through. Some vehicles are waved through, others briefly questioned and some, ordered to pull over for a secondary inspection.
Editor’s note: A version of this story will appear in the summer 2020 special issue of the Patagonia Regional Times.