Border arrests drop along new barriers near Yuma

Between the Colorado River and a desolate rock hill to the east are 48 miles of various types of barriers dividing the United States and Mexico, almost all of them new.

While other parts of the southwestern border remain porous, this small part of Arizona has become an example in the federal government’s effort to stop illegal immigration and other traffic.

In the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, arrests of illegal immigrants have dropped from 119,000 in 2006 to 38,000 in the fiscal year that ended in September, and the trend continues downward.

Though the various barriers aren’t impermeable – in some stretches, they block only vehicles, and some rocky hills aren’t covered at all – they seem to be working.

Authorities in Mexico say they see fewer immigrants trying to traverse the border. Authorities in Arizona report that border crime has dropped significantly.

Federal, local and Mexican officials cite the fences as a major reason for the reduction in illegal traffic, arrests and crime in the region.

“We used to see groups of five to 20 illegals every other night during the busy season,” said Michael Bernacke, a Border Patrol agent. “These days, we stop a group a week, just about.”

But the future of the fencing program is unclear. A 2006 border-security law put the new fencing in place. Now, changes to that law, which Congress passed this week, ease the federal fence-building mandate. The process to build barriers will involve more collaboration with local leaders but could be more complicated than what the original law called for.

That move has infuriated border-security supporters. In the meantime, the Yuma area’s fences, barriers and other obstructions are the most extensive border-deterrent system in the region.
Building fences
The barriers are being built by a combination of regular Army and National Guard troops and private contractors under the direction of the Boeing Corp. Fence construction accelerated with passage of the Secure Fence Act in October 2006. It calls for 680 miles of double-layered fencing in select places along the 1,950-mile frontier. Almost all of Arizona is slated for some form of improvement.

This week, Congress passed a bill amending the act, giving Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff flexibility to decide where to build the fence, what form it should take and how much to build. The bill steered $1.2 billion for the work next year.

In towns and official border crossings, the fence strategy calls for metal walls to block people from illegally entering the United States on foot. A little farther out, the government has put up reinforced mesh fences to also stop cross-border trucks. In more remote areas, deemed unreachable by foot, metal bollards or welded sections of rail are in place to stop trucks.

The plan relies on sensors and cameras to monitor remote areas between the physical barriers.

Arizona, the busiest smuggling corridor on the border, has seen much of the early fence building. By the end of the federal fiscal year, the government had added 73 miles of fencing, bringing the total to 157 miles in Arizona, said Mike Friel, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman. Barriers of various kinds have gone up in or near San Luis, the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, Lukeville, Sasabe, Nogales, Lochiel, Naco and Douglas.
Deterring immigrants
The fences aren’t the only factor in the drop in arrests. Officials on both sides of the border also point to the presence of more U.S. Border Patrol agents or National Guard troops and a fear of jail time under a new program to prosecute first-time adult border-crossers in Yuma County.

In the past two months, border agents in the Yuma area have made one-third fewer arrests than the same time last year. The undocumented immigrants who do attempt cross tend to be more desperate and have longer criminal histories, authorities say. In Mexico, Ricardo Ramirez Piñal leads Grupos Beta teams out into the desert between San Luis Rio Colorado and Sonoyta to advise immigrants at staging camps against crossing north into the United States. In the past year, he has come across 70 percent fewer people attempting the trek.

Piñal said that immigrants will cross into what is widely regarded as the most inhospitable region of the entire frontier. “Three years ago, there were migrants every day, all day,” Piñal said. “Now, the migrants hear they will be arrested and get 15 days in jail. So they don’t cross here. They are afraid to cross here.”
Drop in border crime
In San Luis, Ariz., neighborhoods near the fence have reported a drop in crime, said Capt. Javier Nuño Jr., the city’s acting police chief.

“We would get bombarded by prowler calls until about eight months ago,” Nuño said.

Residents would report two or three times a night groups of 10 to 20 illegal immigrants hiding in their backyards. These days, it’s more like three times a week and the groups are smaller, Nuño said.

Two years ago, the fence was a 10-foot-high line of corrugated steel, a recycled helicopter landing mat from the Vietnam War. The fence was riddled with holes, and people flooded into the San Luis neighborhoods by the dozens.

Today, the holes are patched and stretches of the steel wall are entirely rebuilt. Thirty yards north of the wall, a 16-foot metal mesh fence stops those who climb the wall. A string of floodlights runs parallel for as far as the eye can see. The double fence buys Border Patrol agents, watching through binoculars or using remote-control cameras, time to intercept. If fence-jumpers manage to get through the second fence in San Luis, they run into a standard chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire.

Nuño said the fence and a quarter-million dollars the federal government paid his department have made the difference. Before the improvements, Jim Cuming would find dozens of cellphones and enough trash to fill half a dozen garbage bags on his border farm two miles up the Colorado River from San Luis. These days, he rarely finds such refuse left by illegal immigrants. He said the fence has accomplished what it was supposed to, but he remains “totally opposed” to it and would prefer the money be spent on more border agents.
Looking ahead
In the Yuma Sector, physical construction of the primary border-line fence is done, except for along the Colorado River. U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to wire the border farther east with an array of sensors and cameras known as the “virtual fence.”

In the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, physical barriers begin again west of Lukeville, where there are about 39 miles of barriers designed to stop trucks. The most recent, detailed construction estimates come from Glenn Spencer, founder of American Border Patrol, a group of anti-immigration volunteers who monitor the border. About every month, he flies along the international line documenting fence-construction progress with a digital camera and global positioning devices.

On Nov. 20, he catalogued 196 miles of barriers on Arizona’s 389-mile border with Mexico. Spencer found damaged fencing and foot tracks on the U.S. side of the fence and concluded that it’s too early to say the barrier works.

He objected to revisions to the Secure Fence Act. Under the changes, funds for fencing and other border security will not released until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has consulted with other federal agencies, local governments and property owners. It also could decide to build no physical barrier at all. Spencer and other fence-first proponents believe the double fence is a minimum requirement.

Elsewhere in Arizona, the Homeland Security says it plans more Arizona fences but hasn’t decided how much or where. In California, Texas and soonest in New Mexico, the government plans to build 116 miles of new barriers of various types, according to its Web site.

The government hopes the results of the Yuma Sector will replicate. For now, the Yuma barriers end near a lonely hill southeast of San Luis. The nearest sign of civilization is an hour’s drive on the rutted, unpaved Camino del Diablo.

The fence is metal mesh, but the hills are naked with no fence at all. It’s easy to walk around the barriers. But here in the desert on the Mexican side, the tire tracks from smugglers’ trucks lead up to the fence, then turn around. None of the tracks cross over to the U.S. side.

“Yuma has become a very uncomfortable place to cross the border,” said Bernacke, the Border Patrol agent.

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