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Life in a town with more Border Patrol agents than residents

The number of U.S. Border Patrol agents stood at over 1,700 in 1975, but today nearly 20,000 agents are on patrol as one of the largest and most well-funded enforcement agencies in the country. A new documentary called "Undeterred," sheds light on how the expansion has impacted one small Arizona community along the southern border. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Back in 1975, the number of Border Patrol agents in the U.S. was just over 1,700. Today, with more than ten times that number, the U.S. Border Patrol is one of the largest and most well-funded enforcement agencies in the United States.

    A new documentary set in rural Arizona sheds light on how the agency's expansion has impacted one small community along the country's southern border. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has the story.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In the new documentary, Undeterred, filmmaker and activist Eva Lewis depicts life in the southern border-town of Arivaca, Arizona. It's a community of fewer than 700, about 60 miles south of Tucson, and 11 miles north of the Mexico border. Lewis moved to Arivaca in 2013 to volunteer with a local migrant aid group.

  •  Eva Lewis:

    People in Arivaca will talk about how in the '80s and even the early '90s, there was one border patrol agent who was responsible for the whole area around Arivaca. And you would see him maybe once a year.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    That began to change some 35 years ago.

  • President Bill Clinton:

    Our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Starting in 1994 under President Clinton, a U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement Strategy called "Operation Prevention Through Deterrence" more than tripled the manpower and infrastructure along the border. Immigration checkpoints were positioned on all major roads in the area. Lewis says that today Arivaca is what she calls a "militarized" zone.

  •  Eva Lewis:

    You'll be driving on the road and you might see one car or no cars of another resident, but you might see ten,15 border patrol cars pass you. It means helicopters which fly low chasing people who they're looking for through the community. It means thousands of ground sensors that are buried, agents on horseback, on foot, on ATVs. And it means checkpoints every time you want to leave the community.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Most residents don't work in Arivaca, and there is no elementary or high school in town. So, every day, people leaving the community on the one road going north must pass through a checkpoint.

  • Eva Lewis:

    So, if you want to go to the hardware store, go see a movie, go to a grocery store that's bigger than the little store we have in town, everybody has to pass through border patrol checkpoints.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The documentary includes videos and firsthand accounts contributed by Arivaca residents, alleging unwarranted searches and verbal harassment by border agents at that checkpoint on Arivaca road. Arivaca resident Jolene Montana speaks for many in the film.

  • Jolene Montana:

    We're like, we're u.s. citizens, why are you stopping us? They wouldn't give us any answers they were very aggressive. Got us out of the vehicle, threw everything out of the vehicle, went through all of our purses. We tried to film them on the phone, and they said no you can't do that. One of them had me up against my car, he was in my face. He had my id and he had my tribal id and he said you, "you have no rights here."

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Arivaca residents Leesa Jacobson and Carlota Wray were also featured in the documentary.

  • Leesa Jacobson:

    Border patrol operates with pretty much impunity. And it doesn't operate like any other law enforcement. It's not really civilian. It's not really military. It's not like a sheriff's department or a police department where, if you have a complaint, it may not get the result that you wish, but at least there are civilian boards of oversight– ways to handle things. And – but that doesn't exist in border patrol.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Filmmaker Eva Lewis says U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to her request for an interview for the documentary. PBS NewsHour Weekend also reached out to CBP for an interview, or written statement, for this report, but the agency did not respond. The documentary highlights local activism through the volunteer group "People Helping People in the Border Zone", or "PHP", which formed in 2012.

  • Arivaca resident:

    We are here to deliver this petition.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Residents are shown petitioning for the removal of the checkpoint on Arivaca road.

  • Arivaca resident:

    This checkpoint must go.

    Since 2014, PHP volunteers have monitored from a distance how agents conduct stops. That year, the group says it submitted information related to more than 2,300 vehicle stops to a data scientist at the University of Arizona for analysis.

  • Leesa Jacobson:

    Latinos were 26 times more likely to show identification at the checkpoint than non-Latinos. And they were 20 times, 20 times, not 20%, 20 times more likely to be pulled into secondary inspection.

  • Carlota Wray:

    When I go with my sister or my brother-in-law, even my own kids or grandkids, because of the color of the skin they usually ask more questions.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Most of Arivaca' s residents are white, but it does have small native and Latino populations as well. Carlota Wray, who was born in Mexico, is a naturalized American citizen and has lived in the Arivaca since 1980.

  • Carlota Wray:

    But it really still hurts my feelings. Because, I mean, there are agents on each side of your car with, heavily armed. And I don't know what they'll do, you know?

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But Wray says racial profiling isn't her biggest concern. The border patrol strategy "Operation Prevention Through Deterrence" closed off traditional ports of entry from Mexico into the U.S. closer to main roads and highways, rerouting migrants to some of the most barren areas of the desert. In the last 20 years, more than 3,000 migrants have died in Arizona's borderlands, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. Wray says those who do survive the journey, often end up lost and in desperate circumstances in the town of Arivaca.

  • Carlota Wray:

    They come very ill to our doors, to our backyards. It's a very bad experience. And only the person that goes through that knows how it is. I always keep my eyes open to see if I see anyone on the side of the road, because I have found somebody dying on the side of the road. So, it's like something that's always in the back of my head.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Filmmaker Eva Lewis hopes the documentary will give people outside of border communities insight into how they too could be affected.

  • Eva Lewis:

    I think people should be really concerned about what it means to dehumanize one group of people and what that can mean in terms of it bleeding into all parts of society and daily life for everyone.

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