Five years ago, an extraordinary scene played out regularly in the southwest-Arizona desert near Yuma. Groups of illegal aliens, sometimes 300 or more, would stage mad rushes across the largely unfenced Mexican line, challenging an undermanned Border Patrol to stop them. Agents rounded up as many as they could, but the numbers were grim. The 126-mile-wide Yuma sector held the dubious honor of being the nation’s prime entry point for illegal aliens from Mexico. In 2005, agents made 138,437 arrests in the sector.
But by 2009, the number had dropped to 6,951, and not because of relaxed enforcement. “Homeland Security has designated this area as operationally controlled, meaning if anyone tries to cross here, there’s an excellent chance we’ll catch them,” says Ken Jensen, a Border Patrol spokesman in Yuma.
Why did this happen? The declining economy certainly played a role — but more important was the fact that effective fencing, in tandem with additional manpower and technology, greatly deterred would-be illegal immigrants.
Border Patrol’s Operation Streamline has been part of the solution. The program requires all adults convicted of entering the U.S. around Yuma to serve some jail time, which deters crossings. Also, Yuma, with its largely flat ground, has proven to be ideal terrain for ground-based radar.
But fencing is perhaps the key ingredient in Yuma, as it has been in two other urban areas. Fence building began in earnest after Pres. George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act in October of 2006. Since then, the Yuma sector has gone from having almost no border fencing — except around San Luis, Ariz. — to having 81 miles of pedestrian fencing and 45 miles of vehicle barriers.
“Every place we can put a fence, we’ve put one,” says Jensen. At San Luis — which sits right on the border, 19 miles south of Yuma — crossers encounter 8.3 miles of triple-layer fencing: a 12-foot-tall metal wall, followed by more than 30 yards of floodlit ground, then a 16-foot-tall steel-mesh fence, and finally a chain-link fence with razor wire on top.
For businessman Henry Chavez, whose company, San Luis Cooling, sits right on the border, the new fence has been a blessing. Before its construction, crossers regularly climbed the ten-foot-tall “landing-mat fence” that then blocked the border. Nearby neighborhoods were overrun with illegal aliens, and police sometimes fielded 20 prowler calls per night. “I had between 10 and 20 undocumented people coming over that mat fence and crossing my property every day,” says Chavez. “But since the triple-layer fence went in, I haven’t seen anybody. Not one.”
The benefits have been felt throughout Yuma County, where beefed-up enforcement has been a major factor in a significant drop in border-related crime, says Eben Bratcher, patrol captain for the Yuma County sheriff’s office. Between 2005 and 2008, traffic accidents in the county dropped 30 percent, auto thefts 54 percent, drug and DUI cases 38 percent, and burglary and other thefts 88 percent. “We had bunches of cases where border bandits were robbing illegal migrants,” says Bratcher. “They’d wait until groups crossed into the U.S., take everything they had, and flee back into Mexico. The fence has stopped that completely.”
A similar story has unfolded east of El Paso, Texas, around the border community of Fabens, which is now protected by an 18-foot, double-layer mesh fence that extends 21 miles along the Rio Grande River. Prior to the start of construction in 2008, the Border Patrol arrested 250 illegals a day around Fabens. “Today, if we see five apprehensions a week, that’s a lot,” says Valeria Morales, a supervisory Border Patrol agent who works the Fabens area. She acknowledges that some illegals still climb the fence, and others go around it. “But the groups that do that are much smaller than before, and out in the remote areas we have more time to make arrests,” she says.
As for the fence itself, agents say its primary benefit is forcing crossers to commit. When border areas were blocked only by barbed wire, detected groups could easily flee back into Mexico. But now, after jumping the tall fence, they have no place to run if Border Patrol approaches.
Another benefit: The new steel fencing, unlike the old barbed-wire fencing (which was in poor repair and had many gaps), prevents American and Mexican cattle from mingling. Animal-health experts say that if the wrong disease were to migrate north and infect American cattle herds, it could do serious damage to the beef industry.
For example, an outbreak of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth virus could be devastating, says Rick Willer, former head of the U.S. Animal Health Association. “If we had a foot-and-mouth outbreak, our entire beef export market would cease to exist overnight, and the effect would ripple through the economy,” says Willer.
New fencing outside Nogales, Ariz., 300 miles west of Yuma, has made it impossible for Mexican and American herds to mingle. It has also helped restore the land itself, says Keith Graves, former district ranger for the Coronado National Forest. He cites the national forest land west of downtown Nogales, almost 4 miles of which is blocked by a new, 18-foot bollard fence, consisting of rectangular panels four inches apart.
The problems that once plagued the land on the American side — piles of trash, the trampling of sensitive forest land, migrating cattle — are mostly gone. “Those miles are no longer a significant problem for the forest or for the ranchers who have grazing permits there,” says Graves, now a liaison between the Forest Service and the federal government’s Secure Border Initiative.
With its hills, deep canyons, and sheltered forests, the terrain around this border town, 60 miles south of Tucson, is a challenge to patrol. But Alan White, the Border Patrol’s chief agent in Nogales, says the new fencing — which also extends 8.7 miles east of downtown — is part of a package of improvements that is yielding results. In the past year, narcotics seizures in the Nogales sector have dropped 27 percent, and arrests are down 23 percent.
White cites a common argument of fence critics — that an 18-foot fence can be foiled by a 19-foot ladder — and acknowledges that some “spry young people” probably climb the new fence every day. But, he notes, they can’t drive over it in trucks packed with people; it must be climbed one person at a time; and it can’t be scaled by someone carrying a 70-pound bundle of marijuana. “The fence slows down the flood to levels we can manage,” White says. “And the dirt road running underneath it is just as important. Now we have a piece of infrastructure we can defend, and the access to defend it.”
White’s biggest challenge now is getting money to replace the 2.7 miles of landing-mat fence that currently separates downtown Nogales from Mexico. Built in the mid-1990s, it stands 12 feet tall and is routinely climbed, tunneled under, and blow-torched. From last October to March of this year, vandals on the Mexican side put 240 holes in it.
Lately, with border crossers trying to get around the new fence, the old landing mat has seen more climbers than it used to. The lesson, says White, is that effective fencing can help Border Patrol control a specific piece of ground, but crossers will always try to get around it and through it. Yuma County’s Eben Bratcher echoes that, saying the fight for a secure border requires constant vigilance.
“This is a resource game, and we can’t let down our guard,” he says. “I’d hate to see a shift of Border Patrol agents out of Yuma now that we’re under control. The fence and additional agents have really helped here, and nobody wants to go back to the way things were.”
– Leo W. Banks has been a journalist in Arizona for more than 30 years. He has covered border issues for the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Tucson Weekly, and others.