The difficulty of securing the border

Many people are demanding we “secure the border” before going forward with immigration reform. Including me.

However, one needs to understand the difficulty of actually “securing the border” to the point that is a significant reduction in illegal entry of undocumented workers and their families, and the smuggling of drugs across our southern border.

Several of us border area residents offer guided tours of the border areas to show people exactly what the border is, and what the problems are in securing it.

Tuesday several of us did a run from Amado out through Arivaca, over to Sasabe, then from Sasabe back to Arivaca along the border.

As we arrived in Amado the Border Patrol was busy processing a group of undocumented aliens they had caught somewhere in the area. The group was your typically darkly dressed folks who walk for several days through the countryside to their pickup points. Over the years the number of days undocumented aliens walk has increased and the pickup points have migrated farther north.

We stopped at a water station on the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge east of Arivaca. There as been a lot of controversy about humanitarian groups placing bottles of water all over the wildlife refuge as opposed to the 3 permanent water stations that are allowed on the refuge. There are lots of additional water availabilities on the refuge at stock tanks and other locations so in actuality the refuge is not really a particularly hostile environment for people crossing through the countryside. The fight about placing water bottles around is more theater.

Example of border fence


At Sasabe there is a stretch of nice new border fence which is kind of like wrought iron bars, which allows wildlife to pass through…at least smaller critters. However, this fence, while being fairly aesthetic, is no match for folks with ladders from the other side. As they say in Mexico, “you build a 10 foot fence we will bring a 12 foot ladder”. All a fence does is slow someone down, and they do deny vehicle access from Mexico.

We drove west out along the fence and in just a few minutes we were visited by a Border Patrol agent. This was excellent. We were spotted out there and the Border Patrol immediately responded. The fence works if there is also a very quick response capability to anything happening at the fence.

Then we went east from Sasabe into the zone where US Fish & Wildlife has banned access. Bloggers claim they have ceded a portion of the United States to the cartels. The zone of no access is something like a mile deep south of the US Forest Service road through the area to the actual border, and one gets the distinct feeling that the road is actually a pretty good place to “hold the line”.

Example of Normandy Barrier


The nice new border fence peters out east of Sasabe into the Normandy Barriers, a jack-like crisscross of railroad rails with connecting rails welded together across the top. Beyond the Normandy Barrier  is just your typical 3 strand barbed wire fence. Obviously the Normandy Barrier will stop vehicle access across the border, but anyone walking across has no problem entering the US.

The country east of Sasabe starts getting really rugged with deep ravines. The road network pulls back from the border a mile or two and it is extremely difficult country to navigate in using a vehicle.

There are many places here where your field of vision if extremely limited and there could be 100 people 100 feet from you and you would never see them.

One cannot just do a math formula and say put a Border Patrol agent every mile or so and do anything useful here.

Example of Virtual Fence tower


There are electronic sensor towers all over the area from the “Secure Border Initiative” which was deemed worthless. It is really easy to see why these electronic sensor towers were worthless because the terrain is so rugged, nothing human or artificial is going to see into the deep canyons and spot anyone. The tower deal looks like it was hatched up by someone in an office in California that didn’t know how to read a topographic map and had never actually set foot on the borderlands.

And then the countryside gets really rugged, with jagged mountain ranges and cliffs dominating. At this point there is not even a Normandy Fence. It is your basic three strand barbed wire ranch fence. There is absolutely no vehicle access opportunities from either side.

The only way these rugged stretches of the border are going to be denied to illegal entry and drug smuggling is to put a whole lot of “boots on the ground”…how many is a guess…but after you see this countryside …it is obvious one could post 1,000 agents in a 10 mile stretch of this part of the border, and still not get 100% security against illegal entry.

The plain reality is between the desperation of the migrants and the lust for money from the drug smugglers, no matter how difficult it is to illegally cross, they will try.

One obviously failure of US policy to secure the border has been the US government’s under-estimation of the determination of smugglers of people and drugs. Originally it was thought that if the easy paths across the border were sealed off in and around border cities, the flow would be significantly reduced. Didn’t happen. Even though the “risk premium” of trying to cross at more and more remote and difficult and dangerous locations increased…measured in part by the number of deaths out here…the US effort to secure the border just relocated the illegal activity into these rugged, remote and dangerous areas of the border and allowed the coyotes to charge more for their services.

We actually ran into a lot of Border Patrol this trip on the Forest Service roads between Sasabe and Arivaca. Most of them were parked at high spots watching the countryside, and a few were patrolling along the roads.

You can sit for hours at one of these locations and see nothing move. Down in the bottom of the canyons, you cannot see into the dense brush cover anyway. If you were determined to not be spotted by the Border Patrol, it would not be hard to accomplish. Once people or drugs have crossed into the US, it has become a cat and mouse game of hiding and walking, hiding and walking…and the illegal entrants and drug smugglers have the advantage because the countryside is so rough.

It may look good on paper that there are hundreds of border patrol agent…thousands actually, in an area 262 miles long by about 30 miles deep, but that means you are hunting for maybe 3,000 people in an area of 7,860 square miles. After you look at this countryside, you are going to “catch” more people who have given up the trek than actually “catch” them sneaking through the area.

No one knows for sure how many people daily sneak across…but just in a 30 mile stretch of the border east of Sasabe, if you could catch 10% of 3,000 illegal entrants just in that area you would be doing really good.

The point is the chances are in favor of the illegal entrants and drug smugglers…and these days the coyote fee includes multiple attempts to be smuggled across. If at first you don’t succeed, try…try again…is the rule out there. Given enough attempts, the bet is everyone succeeds…except those who die in the process.

The claim that apprehensions are down meaning fewer people are crossing seem bogus when you see first hand where the Border Patrol is and is not, and the ability of illegal entrants to use the rugged terrain to their advantage. Apprehensions are down because the Border Patrol isn’t deployed in a way to catch them in the canyons and ravines because you can’t get there in trucks.

There is no question that parts of the border have been secured. But there are still serious gaps which have not been secured. The manpower and resources needed to close these remaining gaps is not trivial.


About Hugh Holub

Attorney and writer.
This entry was posted in border issues, border patrol, border patrol tucson sector, border security, department of homeland security, immigration law reform, mexican drug cartels, us customs and border protection. Bookmark the permalink.

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