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Border surge proposal has many skeptics

The Senate appears set to approve legislation providing a $30-billion boost in security, but some experts and border residents doubt the plan would pay off.

June 21, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times
  • Jim Chilton and his wife, Sue, investigate a fence hole on their ranch in Arivaca, Ariz. The two say they welcome more border staffing but worry about how it would be managed.
Jim Chilton and his wife, Sue, investigate a fence hole on their ranch in… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

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 cellphone to his backyard and made himself visible to a border surveillance camera perched atop a tower half a 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 says. "It's impossible to be 100% 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 U.S.-Mexico 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, Marshals 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 with 1.6 million in 2000.

Joyal said federal authorities needed to better manage staff they already had 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 says 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, welcome more border staffing but worry about 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 that 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, says his station has been busier in the last eight months than it's been in a decade, and that it could use the added staff. As of May 31 this fiscal year, their sector had apprehended 93,923 people, outpacing the Tucson area for the first time in 20 years while facing reductions in overtime that limited 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 questions 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.

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