BISBEE, Ariz. – When George Joyal saw a group of people who appeared to have crossed the border illegally sneak by his land recently, his first call was to the Border Patrol.
Joyal, 67, a retired U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, gave the agent his location, then hurried outside with the cell phone to his backyard and made himself visible to a border surveillance camera perched atop a tower a half-mile away.
“I see you,” the agent said.
Moments later, Border Patrol agents zoomed up in a cloud of dust to detain the group. Joyal said there’s no need for Congress to spend billions beefing up border patrol.
“I don’t see that as giving us more security,” Joyal said. “It’s impossible to be 100 percent secure. Just how safe are you going to get and at what price?”
The Senate appears ready to approve immigration legislation next week providing a $30 billion boost in security along the Mexican border, doubling the number of Border Patrol agents, but some experts and border residents like Joyal are skeptical that the buildup would pay off – even those who supported similar surges in the past.
The Border Patrol already has more than 20,000 agents. Last fiscal year, border-related agencies received about $18 billion in funding, more than the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, Marshal Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined.
In Arizona, the federal government has spent billions fortifying the border with fencing, drones and more than 5,100 Border Patrol staff. It has paid off, with border apprehensions all along the border down to an all-time low of 356,873 last year, compared to 1.6 million in 2000.
Joyal said federal authorities need to better manage staff they already have by moving agents from northern checkpoints closer to the border and relying less on fencing.
“We don’t need more people,” he said. “We need the proper employment of resources.”
Bisbee Mayor Adriana Zavala Badal said most people in town think there are already too many border agents.
“You feel like you’re always being looked at and watched. It’s a nuisance,” she said.
She still can’t get used to the Border Patrol helicopters that hover overhead.
“You feel like you’re in a war zone. It’s noisy,” she said, and “that’s just with one helicopter.”
Ranchers Jim and Sue Chilton, who live about 140 miles west in Arivaca, welcomed more border staffing but worried how the surge would be managed.
In recent years, they saw a fortified fence built along much of the Arizona border – but not near their ranch, which became a heavily traveled gap. Few agents showed up to patrol there, they said.
“The proposal should secure the international border at the border,” Jim Chilton, 73, said. “The Border Patrol needs to change its strategy.”
That same earlier border enforcement surge fortified Naco, Ariz., about 10 miles south of Bisbee, but it hurt business for Leonel Urcadez, 60. People stopped crossing to frequent his Gay 90s Bar a block away from the border, including those with legal status.
“Who wants to come over and get hassled at the border?” he said.
In Texas, which is coping with a new influx of illegal border crossers this year, some were more welcoming of the Senate plan, though still skeptical.
“Boots on the ground and technology are always appreciated,” said Susan Durham, executive director of the South Texans’ Property Rights Assn. “Anything to improve border security in a smart way is good.”
Durham, who lives at the epicenter of the recent convergence in Falfurrias, Texas, where a checkpoint has been set up about 75 miles north of the border, worries there is no way to measure how effective adding staff will be, or whether they will be deployed where they are most needed.
“Throwing money at it is one thing, but you’ve got to be smart about it,” she said.
Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent based in the border city of McAllen, Texas, said his station has been busier in the past eight months than it’s been in a decade and could use the added staff. So far this fiscal year as of May 31, their sector has apprehended 93,923 people, outpacing the Tucson area for the first time in 20 years while facing reductions in overtime that limit staffing.
“Down here we’re getting hit hard and they don’t want to throw anything at it,” said Cabrera, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 3307 union, which has more than 1,000 members. “You could never go wrong with more manpower – I guess you could over-saturate it, but we’re nowhere near that.”
But even Cabrera questioned how the buildup would be managed. His sector had a staff of 2,546 last year, almost twice the staffing when he started in 2001, but not enough additional money to support the build-up.
“We don’t have money for what we have now, I don’t know how we’re going to have it for more manpower,” he said.He said agents have been unable to patrol at times due to fuel shortages, and have faced cutbacks in training and replacement vehicles.
With the surge, he said, “You’re going to catch more people, so you’re going to need more stations, more vehicles, more fuel. You’re going to have to build more buildings to base these people out here.”
The Border Patrol will also need more temporary detention space. The McAllen station has space for 300, but has been housing up to 1,000, Cabrera said. Detainees sleep on concrete floors, and there are no showers.
In California, Shawn Moran, the national Border Patrol union’s vice president based in San Diego, said the union was working with senators to build in provisions to ensure that new staff are screened, trained and paid appropriately.
“We have concerns about how they are going to recruit, conduct background checks and training because when they did this previously, they sort of short-circuited the procedures,” Moran said, referring to a 2005 border patrol recruitment campaign.
Some are worried that tripling the number of drones and opening new checkpoints could put everyone under the government’s watch.
“One concern we have is whether that’s going to mean a doubling of abuse by Border Patrol agents,” said James Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has offices along the border. “The super surveillance caused by the drones is also a matter of concern because of the way the drones could be used to spy on folks that are entitled to be here. Just this over-militarization on the border is unsettling.”
The real question – whether all the plans for stepped-up security will achieve the goal of curtailing illegal crossings – remains in doubt. If past border build-ups are any gauge, this one could merely inspire immigrants to become more creative, said Kelly Lytle Hernandez, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of “Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol.”
“People invent new ways of entering – tunneling, cutting border fences, taking to the ocean,” Hernandez said. “If you don’t understand how many times we’ve tried this and failed, it all sounds like a good idea – amnesty and border security. But we always find ourselves years later with the same problem.”