Point of Controversy

Permanent Border Patrol checkpoints have something of a checkered track record

Eighty years ago, illegal immigration from Mexico was a major concern in Southern Arizona--although Chinese nationals were then the primary focus of attention.

But border security proved impossible to achieve. As the U.S. secretary of labor observed in 1927: "Not even a Chinese wall, 9,000 miles in length and built over rivers and deserts and mountains and along the seashores, would seem to permit a permanent solution."

Eight decades later, the U.S. Border Patrol is proposing a permanent checkpoint near Tubac as part of its solution to illegal immigration and drug smuggling from Mexico. Touting this high-tech facility as one way to address the complex issue, the agency has lined up an impressive list of local allies for the project.

Nearby residents and property owners, though, have serious concerns.

To find out more about the proposal, Tubac real estate developer Gary Brasher and several others from the area recently traveled to Laredo, Texas, to inspect a checkpoint which opened in 2005.

Situated on Interstate 35 some 30 miles north of the Texas border city, the checkpoint replaced another, smaller one 20 miles farther south. The facility has a 6,000-square-foot main building, along with six service lanes for vehicles which can be increased to eight if needed. Originally estimated to cost $9 million, the cost rose to $13 million during construction.

"It was very informative," Brasher says of the trip, "but left us with more questions."

While the Texas checkpoint is on flat ranch land, the Tubac checkpoint would be located near existing and planned homes.

Brasher adds that the group talked to a Laredo reporter who told them illegal immigrants in the area have found new avenues around the checkpoint. A Texas rancher who lives near another checkpoint in the area observed the same thing.

According to a 2006 Associated Press report, this checkpoint east of Laredo brought immediate problems to surrounding landowners. One rancher stated that once the facility opened, "illegal immigrants simply slashed his cattle fences and sneaked through his (nearby) ranch."

People living near a long-established but temporary checkpoint on Interstate 19 have recently reported similar difficulties. In response, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who represents the area, wrote the U.S. Border Patrol a few weeks ago asking that the temporary facility be moved.

In the same letter, Giffords requested more agents be assigned to the checkpoint and that the agency "deploy sensors, radar, cameras and other technology to identify those who are going around the checkpoint so that agents can be quickly dispatched to intercept and apprehend these individuals."

For his part, Brasher says there are six checkpoints near Laredo, and he questions what the Border Patrol will do along the other highways leading out of Nogales.

"I wonder what the Border Patrol plans to do south of the (proposed) station," he says. "Why not defend the border closer to the border?"

Giffords agrees that more must be done, including increased federal efforts and more reimbursement for local law enforcement. But she also argues that most of the region's drug smuggling and human trafficking from Mexico uses I-19.

For that reason, Giffords--who neither supports a border wall nor advocates for the checkpoint proposal--believes the permanent station is a possibility. To look at it and other ideas, a working group of interested parties was formed in April and has met a few times.

"Everything should be on the table," Giffords says.

Giffords adds that one advantage of a permanent checkpoint--compared to the temporary one which was insisted upon by her predecessor, Jim Kolbe--is technology. She says trucks can be X-rayed, with the images compared to those taken at the Nogales international crossing.

"If there are any changes, it can really help in terms of human and drug smuggling. I'm determined to secure the border," Giffords adds, "and (Southern Arizona) has not had the security of other parts of the border."

That's one reason Giffords believes so many narcotics and humans are stopped daily in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector. Of that situation, she says: "I'll not stand by and allow Southern Arizona to be a pipeline for illegal drugs and immigrants."

Basher believes that future improvements in technology may provide an argument against the permanent checkpoint. He recalls that at one meeting, a Border Patrol spokesman said the agency would like the new facility completed in three or four years. But if emerging technology could replace the need for a permanent checkpoint, Brasher asks: "Why spend this kind of money on something that could be obsolete before it is finished?"

That isn't the only unresolved issue for the Border Patrol. When asked in an e-mail inquiry whether his agency prepared a cost/benefit analysis on the checkpoint proposal, Washington, D.C.-based Border Patrol spokesman Javier Rios replied: "I can't find anything of that sort. But there are operational advantages of a permanent checkpoint in efficiency and safety."

Giffords says she's hoping for a strategy from the working group by the end of the summer. Their next meeting is at 5:30 p.m., Monday, June 4, in The Villages recreation center in Green Valley.

"That's the best way to move community decisions forward," the first-term congresswoman says about the working group.