Border Bust

The Border Patrol has made Douglas a boom town, but new foreign policy could make the city fizzle.

In the mid '90s, as the U.S. began shoring up its border with Mexico in California and Texas, particularly in areas surrounding San Diego and El Paso, two quite predictable events resulted. First, illegal immigration along those parts of the frontier dramatically decreased. And second, the influx of undocumented immigrants began to increase substantially elsewhere.

Beginning in 1995, a stretch of border adjacent to the small city of Douglas, two hours south of Tucson, suddenly found itself inundated by an ever-increasing number of undocumented immigrants. Major highways and interstates led north to Tucson and Phoenix. Just across the border, Agua Prieta, a city of roughly 150,000, was an attractive starting point for the trek northward. In short, with San Diego and El Paso inaccessible, Douglas seemed the ideal alternative. The local Border Patrol station was severely under staffed.

But as the number of undocumented immigrants increased, so too did that of the Border Patrol agents assigned to stop them. In 2000 alone, the Border Patrol apprehended roughly 270,000 undocumented non-U.S. nationals in the vicinity of Douglas. Since '95, the number of agents has grown from some 100 to the current total of 565. For the citizens of Douglas, that's approximately one agent for every 27 inhabitants.

The economic effects on this community of around 14,000 have been substantial.

"They've had a tremendous impact," says Community and Economic Development Director Art Macias. "Primarily, those agents are from outside the community. They're actually new dollars."

With an annual payroll of roughly $18 million, according to the Border Patrol's own account, that's a lot of new dollars. Currently, nearly 70 percent of those agents live in the city and surrounding areas and rely on Douglas for everything from gas to housing to healthcare. Much of this growth has been the result of projects designed to attract young agents to the city. For example, the city sponsored the building of a new $6 million, 80-unit apartment complex. These efforts seem to be paying off.

"We've had consistent growth of 6 to 8 percent in our tax revenues for the last five years," Macias adds.

In addition to its payroll, the Border Patrol station has an annual operation budget of $1.1 million, and maintenance and improvements to the border itself, often contracted out to local companies, account for millions more spent in the community. But the most significant, and indeed most enterprising, of the Border Patrol's expenditures is the new station currently under construction.

This 52,000-square-foot structure, a godsend for local construction, is set to open in April 2002, and all told will cost $19 million. Located a few miles outside the city limits, it will replace an existing building originally built to accommodate a mere 40 agents. The new facility, when completed, will be the largest Border Patrol station on the Mexican-American border.

BUT EVEN AS construction continues, two separate recent occurrences threaten both the future of Border Patrol in Douglas, and the symbiotic relationship between the government and the city.

In April, George W. Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, met in Mexico and set down the groundwork for the high-level meetings currently underway between the two governments. The main subject of these initiatives is the establishment of long-term solutions to current immigration problems.

Though estimates of the number of undocumented Mexican nationals currently living in the United States vary greatly, Miguel Escobar Valdez, the Mexican consul in Douglas, sets the figure at between 2 and 4 million. He says that the increased risk and difficulty involved with entering the country illegally have forced these immigrants to reside here on what he calls a "semi-permanent basis."

"[These Mexicans] are afraid to go back to Mexico because of the dangers and the difficulties that they are going to be encountering if they should try to get back to their jobs and their lives in the United States," he maintains.

In an August 9 press conference, Secretary of State Colin Powell, while acknowledging the necessary role Mexican labor plays in the American economy, expressed his hope to curb the growth of this "semi-permanent" segment of the population through the possible establishment of a system of temporary work visas.

Though the State Department is adamant that the process will take time, its eventual goal seems clear: a solution that will benefit both countries and check the flow of undocumented Mexicans across the border. Of course, any such solution would inherently have a major impact on the Border Patrol. A reduction in the number of illegal immigrants would decrease the need for the kind of manpower-intensive militarized policing of our southern border that has now become the norm.

But though any such legislation may still be years away, another factor threatens to force serious changes on a local level. Arrests of immigrants in the Douglas sector are down 43 percent from last year, the first drop in six years. Border Patrol officials are hesitant to comment on the reasons for this decrease, but they do concede that it may very well be that their efforts to increase manpower and upgrade technology in the sector may finally be paying off. But where tomorrow's immigrants decide to cross is anyone's guess.

Now, after six years, it appears that the Border Patrol may soon claim victory in the battle of Douglas, but at what cost to the taxpayer and the community? It seems hard to justify maintaining the nation's largest Border Patrol station with a staff of nearly 600 agents along this section of the border--especially if arrest totals decrease to their 1995 level, when a mere 100 agents were based in Douglas.

For the city, the windfalls of the blessing in disguise may soon come to an end, and no one seems to know exactly what will happen in the aftermath. When Justin Bristow, community liaison officer for the Border Patrol in Douglas, was asked how his agency would respond to changes in national foreign policy and immigration patterns in the area, he replied simply, "We'll adapt."

And the people of Douglas may soon have to do the same.