Frontera Formations

The history of security in Ambos Nogales

Nogales, Sonora, rumbles with noise and motion near the international border. Buses, cars and pedestrians kick up dust on the streets. Shop owners display their goods on bustling sidewalks. Restaurants post the daily specials. Taxis load passengers and zoom off into the city. The occasional police truck weaves through the traffic, and a few bicycle cops in neon vests congregate on the roadside. At the international port of entry, people and cars are backed up, sometimes for hours, waiting to be assessed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

On the other side of the 20-foot steel border fence, sister city Nogales, Ariz., seems sleepy and still by comparison. In this 20,000-person town, border security is ever-present. Green and white Border Patrol vehicles frequently crawl along quiet neighborhood streets; agents on bicycles pedal past storefronts; stadium lights powered by growling generators blaze from sundown to sunrise; and surveillance towers stand high above the border fence, monitoring people on both sides.

Security in Ambos Nogales has not always looked this way.

For much of our history as neighbors, people and goods have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with few impediments. The communities of Ambos Nogales have long co-existed with histories, economies and families overlapping across the border, or frontera.

Despite the interconnections, barriers between the two countries have steadily increased since the 1920s. And by the 1990s, a dramatic upswing in U.S. immigration legislation led to intensified border militarization—in both boots-on-the-ground and the border wall.

In a post-9/11 era, supporters of the wall say it provides security, limits drug trafficking and deters migrants from crossing into the U.S.

Others see the wall as an ineffective way to address human and drug trafficking and perceive growing militarization as an unwelcome sign to our neighbors, which negatively affects the lives of people in this cross-national community.

History of Ambos Nogales

People have been crossing this land for centuries, according to Teresa Leal, director and curator of the Pimería Alta Historical Society in Nogales, Ariz., and a longtime resident of Ambos Nogales. A descendent of the Opata, Leal's ancestors and other Sonoran indigenous have been in this land for time immemorial.

"They did not have a fence," she said. "For 7,000 years my family went back and forth in this land."

Later, this region would be claimed as part of New Spain, then Mexico in 1821. When it was settled by the Elías family in a Mexican land grant in the 1840s, it was named Los Nogales after the Spanish word for the walnut trees that once grew abundantly in the area.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 split the land between the U.S. and Mexico and defined the current border between the two countries. But the sister cities of Ambos Nogales grew and developed on both sides of the border, demarcated for decades only by Boundary Monument 122, a small cement pillar on International Street, according to Fred and Harriet Rochlin in their 1976 article, "The Heart of Ambos Nogales."

Growing a Border

Despite nearly non-existent border security along the U.S.-Mexico border at the time, the United States did pass legislation targeting immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1917 immigration act, which particularly targeted Asian migrants.

In 1924, Congress passed a law placing annual quotas on the number immigrants from Europe, "which made a large portion of the world's people officially unwelcome in the United States," according to historian Timothy J. Henderson. The 1924 law also established the U.S. Border Patrol, a force made up of about 450 agents, and infrastructure along the border in Ambos Nogales slowly began to increase.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service launched "Operation Wetback" in 1954, giving Border Patrol agents the authority to launch a mass deportation effort. The INS reported that an estimated one-million undocumented Mexicans were detained and deported that year. Like previous mass deportation efforts, "Operation Wetback" occurred during an economic downturn.

Still, Mexican immigrants were integral to the U.S. economy, especially in agriculture. The Bracero program, which brought Mexican laborers into the United States starting in the early 1940s remained in effect until 1965. Continued guest worker programs have recruited hundreds of thousands of migrants each year for the benefit of U.S. businesses, despite policy changes that added new barriers for immigration.

Then, in the 1990s, a series of immigration policies significantly shifted border security. First, Operation Hold-the-Line was established in El Paso in 1993, and Operation Gatekeeper was implemented in 1994 in San Diego. Also in 1994, the U.S. Border Patrol Tucson Sector announced Operation Safeguard.

These policies dramatically boosted the number of border patrol agents, the construction of new fences and the addition of high-intensity lighting near the City of Nogales. It also began a strategy called "prevention through deterrence," forcing migrants into open desert areas and leading to a marked surge in migrant deaths.

"Strategies like prevention through deterrence, operations like Gatekeeper, Hold-the-Line and all of the targeted enforcement that happened on the U.S.-Mexico border to try to deter undocumented migration instead forced people into very remote and dangerous parts of the Arizona desert and other parts along the border, where they died," said Reyna Araibi, outreach coordinator for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, which advocates for the families of missing migrants.

"From the early '90s onward security has caused what the Border Patrol calls a funnel effect," according to Timothy Dunn, author and sociology professor at Salisbury University. "Before that, there was very little undocumented immigration across the Arizona border."

As part of a response to the dramatic rise in migrant deaths along the Arizona-Sonora border, the CBP implemented Operation Desert Safeguard in 2003. Two divisions were added to the Border Patrol: BORTAC (Border Patrol Tactical Unit) and BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue Team). The operation also increased surveillance technology and added more border patrol agents and stations along the border.

But people crossing the border continued to die in large numbers.

"In general, the enforcement and prevention policies we've seen on the border have never resulted in anything but increased deaths and disappearances," Araibi said.

Since the 1990s, border deaths have roughly doubled, Dunn said. "In Arizona, deaths have increased by a factor of 20."

The number of border crossers from Mexico has decreased since 2007, but Dunn doesn't attribute this to increased security, but instead points to the U.S economy. "Unauthorized migrants are very sensitive to labor markets," he said.

And increased temporary work visas may also impact the number of undocumented migrants.

"Under the last Bush administration into the Obama administration the number of temporary work visas has increased tremendously," Dunn said.

In 2006, the U.S. granted 225,000 temporary visas to Mexican workers. In 2008 it was 360,000, and by 2013 more than 630,000 temporary work visas were granted to Mexico. This is still fewer than those received by Canada, which has the highest number of temporary work visas, Dunn pointed out. "And you don't hear that they are coming to take our jobs," he said.

Today, militarization along the U.S.-Mexico border includes long-range radar, drone surveillance and motion sensors. There are now 301 Border Patrol facilities, more than 20,000 border patrol agents, and, 650 miles of border fence, at times are as high as 20 feet tall, made of thick metal plates. Towers with cameras and floodlights line the border and border patrol agents monitor the area constantly.

It's a far cry from the 450 number of agents in 1924, or even the estimated 4,000 agents in 1994.

Politicians continue to call for more walls, "sealing of the border," but history has shown these policies have not solved the problem, and in some ways made things worse.

"When people in Arizona complain that we have a lot more migration coming across the border now, they're right," Dunn said. Despite an overall decrease in migration from Mexico, security policies have purposefully drawn people to the Arizona-Sonora border region, where they continue to die.

This report is part of an ongoing series produced by UA School of Journalism students. The full online project includes additional information, graphics, and media; including a 360 virtual reality video of the border in Ambos Nogales. For the full project visit:

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