TOPICS > Nation > On the Border

How increased security affects life for border residents

March 28, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
In a sleepy, no-stoplight town 25 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border, you'll pass surveillance towers, border agents on patrol and checkpoints. This is life along the border, where security has been ramped up significantly since 9/11, sweeping up American citizens in its wake. William Brangham reports.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: President Trump today faced questions from both parties over who will pay for his promised wall on the U.S.- Mexico border.

He’s already pledged to hire thousands of new immigration agents, whose jurisdiction extends deep into the U.S. itself.

For Americans on the Southern border, interactions with Border Patrol vary. Some see an occasional inconvenience, others a daily torment.

William Brangham has story.

CARLOTTA WRAY, Arivaca Resident: Right now, it looks more like a war zone.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Carlotta Wray’s commute has changed a lot over the past few years. She lives in Arivaca, a sleepy, no-stoplight town 25 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border. You drive in any direction from here, you will pass surveillance towers and border agents on patrol.

Checkpoints run by Customs and Border Protection, CBP, stop traffic in either direction out of town.

CARLOTTA WRAY: When the checkpoint was only temporary, I thought it wasn’t a big deal, until it got serious. They never left.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Welcome to life along the U.S.-Mexico border, where security has been ramped up significantly since 9/11. In response to drug trafficking and illegal immigration, as well as fears of terror, the federal government has hired more agents and installed more checkpoints.

But Border Patrols infrastructure extends well into the U.S. itself. And it often sweeps up American citizens, regardless of whether they have crossed any international boundary. Research has shown that four out of five drug arrests by Border Patrol actually involve U.S. nationals.

And it’s not just drug arrests. Residents like Carlotta Wray, who’s an American citizen born in Mexico, say they are frequently stopped and harassed, especially because of their skin color.

CARLOTTA WRAY: You can see it. You can feel it. There is racial profiling, no doubt.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: CBP doesn’t release information about the number of checkpoint stops it makes. But Wray’s troubles go beyond the profiling, to what she says is the broader militarization of her whole community.

CARLOTTA WRAY: I have seen Border Patrol agents in my backyard running after something with their pistols in their hands or guns. And that’s not what I want my property for. I want it for my kids, my grandkids to be safe there.

In all these years that I live in this town, I have never been afraid of anyone that walks through the desert and stopped at my place, because he needs help or he just needs water and food. But I have been afraid of the Border Patrol.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: America’s Border Patrol agency was created in 1924 to be responsible for securing U.S. borders between points of entry.

But its jurisdiction actually extends far into the country itself, up to 100 miles from the border. Within that zone, its agents can stop, detain and search any person if an agent suspects a crime is being committed.

About two-thirds of Americans live under Border Patrol’s authority. But, in practice, it’s the people along the border who are impacted most directly.

VICENTE PACO, Border Patrol Spokesman: Every major route of egress into the United States along the border is going to have one of those checkpoints.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Border Patrol spokesman Vicente Paco grew up in a border town himself. He took us on a tour of the border near Nogales, Arizona.

What would you say to people in these neighboring communities who appreciate what your mission is and the job you’re tasked with, but they still say that the impact on their community is too much?

VICENTE PACO: I like to say that I’m a community member myself. I grew up in a border town. And I saw how illegal activity affects people that I went to high school with. People that I grew up with ended up in jail because they were recruited by transnational criminal organizations to bring illicit cargo across the border.

SCOTT RAFTERY, Arizona Rancher: The border check stations can be bothersome if you have to drive through them every day. They stop you, they hold you up for a little bit. But I think, overall, they’re a necessary evil.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Scott Raftery is a rancher and horse trainer near Arivaca. He says he’s recovered a half-dozen dead bodies from the land he works. He once came home to an armed standoff between border agents and border crossers on his own property.

SCOTT RAFTERY: There’s people out there crossing our borders undetected, unstopped. And, somewhere, we have to hold the line on them. And if it’s not at the border, it’s somewhere close to border, because, once they get north of here, they’re gone.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Three hundred miles away in Yuma, Arizona, Sheriff Leon Wilmot also supports stronger security. The former Marine has spent 32 years in the sheriff’s department, and today works closely with federal agencies like Customs and Border Protection, Immigration, Drug Enforcement, even the FBI, all to fight crime in his city of 90,000 residents.

He says the hassle of checkpoints and an increased police presence is a small price to pay to protect residents’ safety.

LEON WILMOT, Sheriff, Yuma County: If you live on the border, you have to understand that you’re going to have to deal with one issue or the other. Which one makes more sense? Public safety, to me, is the government’s priority. To me, that’s a no-brainer, or if it’s going to prevent somebody from being the victim of a homicide.

If we can do something to deter folks from dying and keep those illegal drugs out of our country, to me, that makes sense.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And for those caught in the dragnet?

LEON WILMOT: If you’re abiding by the law, then you have nothing to worry about. If you got a ticket, that’s because you broke the law.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But it’s not so easy for Esteban Duarte. He lives in Yuma with his kids, and he’s a substance abuse counselor. He says, every time he goes through a checkpoint, he ends up in what’s called secondary, where you’re subject to being held and searched.

ESTEBAN DUARTE, Yuma Resident: They do ask me for documents. They keep me sitting in a room for a while. And they just — sometimes, they’re really rude. They tell you to open your car, run you like a little dog. Either you sit, or I’m going to smack you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Richard Edgar, who is a defense attorney in Yuma, sees this frequently.

RICHARD EDGAR, Defense Attorney: You talk to a federal agent 100 percent of the time when you want to leave Yuma County. You’re going to be talking to him, answering questions about your citizenship. You’re going to be answering questions about where you’re going.

They have the authority at any point in time to put you into secondary. And, in secondary, that’s where they really get into it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Edgar says 80 percent of his cases are drug-related offenses from the nearby checkpoints. A 2013 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that Border Patrol around Yuma had some of the highest rates of arrests, not for human trafficking or immigration violations, but for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

RICHARD EDGAR: But if you drive by those checkpoints as many times as somebody down here does, you’re going to see cars on the side in secondary being ripped apart. Now, if they find drugs in 10 percent of those, is it worth it?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Esteban Duarte isn’t sure. He says of course he wants his community and his kids to be safe from crime. But he worries that the hand of Border Patrol comes down too hard.

ESTEBAN DUARTE: From a father’s perspective, I don’t want anything going on, on the streets that’s going to harm my family. , But on the other point of view, I could look at it as, why did they label me for?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Americans living along the border will likely experience even more scrutiny, as the Trump administration orders an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents.

For the PBS NewsHour I’m William Brangham in Yuma, Arizona.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have more from our trip to the border online. We visit a soup kitchen for recently deported migrants in Mexico near Nogales, Arizona, where we talked to a husband and father who has tried to cross the border into the U.S. several times.

SHARE VIA TEXT