Paseo Del Norte, Part II

By Jessica M. Vaughan on March 4, 2009

Already published from this series: Part I

Holding the Line

El Paso is proud of its ranking as the 3rd safest city of its size (after San Jose and Honolulu and just ahead of New York City), and the safest border city. Considering that its Siamese twin Ciudad Juarez is probably the most dangerous city in the world, this is some achievement. One key factor in that status has to be the large Border Patrol presence and the fence. Over the last 15 years, through a combination of increased personnel, completion of the fence, technology to support agents in the field, and inventive policies, the El Paso Border Patrol sector has proven that indeed the border can be controlled. There are still some holes (literal and figurative), but it can be done. Their continued success will help keep El Paso safe and the rest of us, too.

The most common measure of illegal crossing activity is the number of apprehensions made by Border Patrol agents. I have never been sure if increases or decreases are a good or a bad thing, and the numbers get used both ways, but they are one of the few indicators available.

Working as a Border Patrol agent in El Paso must be getting downright boring. In 1993, the average number of apprehensions per day in the El Paso sector was well over 1,000. One day in 1993, the Border Patrol arrested 1,400 illegal aliens just at the El Paso airport. According to Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Ronald LeBlanc, today agents in the 125 square mile sector average just 38 apprehensions per day. To put this in perspective, Agent Ramiro Cordero, my tour guide, told me that years ago he once apprehended 48 aliens at one time by himself, when patrolling on a bike.

The sector saw a 60 percent drop in total apprehensions from 2007 to 2008, from 75,169 to 30,126. This has occurred due to a combination of factors. First, there are more agents patrolling both the border itself and points inside, such as the major highway arteries leading away from the border area and the airport. In 1993, there were 600 agents assigned to the sector; now there are 2,550. Today there are far more Border Patrol agents in El Paso than police officers (1,145) and sheriff’s deputies (260), which helps explain the low crime rate.

One in five of the aliens apprehended by the Border Patrol in El Paso sector has previously committed a crime in the United States. I was told that about 98.5% of all those apprehended in the sector are Mexican. The number of “other than Mexicans” has dropped by more than half in recent years.

Another huge factor in the declining apprehensions is the fence. And, contrary to the rhetoric of anti-immigration-control activists, it is a fence, not a wall. The only border wall I saw was on the Mexican side. The fence is an obvious and indispensable ingredient in border control in this area. The first fence was installed in downtown El Paso in 1967, and it is still standing, although reinforced by more barriers.

The fencing has been extended, and welcomed, in the outskirts of town. The newer parts of the fence prevent vehicles from breaching the border and keep the flow of illegals on foot to a trickle. Before it was constructed, one of the main highways west of the downtown area, Paisano Drive, was dubbed “the most dangerous highway in America.” Thugs would cross regularly from the Mexican side and place old sofas and other obstacles in the roadway to stop cars, whose passengers would then be robbed, assaulted and/or raped. Sheriffs in the outlying areas that have new fencing report similar drops in crime, and unequivocally credit the fence. Assaults on Border Patrol agents, which had been climbing, were down 49% in 2008.

The fence does get sliced open every night, and repairs must be made daily. My guide showed me some fresh holes along with footprints and marks made by illegal crossers from the night before. The tracks were located on the dirt patrol road in between fences in one popular crossing spot, where the surveillance cameras are mounted on a pole facing in opposite directions. The brand-new sections are even stronger and thicker metal mesh that appears less susceptible to wire cutters.

The areas near the fence still must be heavily patrolled and monitored by cameras and sensors feeding back to an operations center, manned by analysts who can alert agents in the field to activity. The smugglers are constantly trying new tactics. For example, agents are now seeing more children working as guides these days. I asked if that was because they would get off easier if caught. My guide said, maybe, but more likely because the kids are smaller and faster.

Another factor that is likely contributing to the decline in illegal activity is the adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy for people caught crossing illegally in certain parts of the sector, similar to Operation Streamline in other parts of the Southwest. Before, only a small share of illegal crossers, usually those with criminal records or multiple illegal entries, were detained and prosecuted; now all those caught are charged and sentenced for entry without inspection, or more serious charges if appropriate. They face up to six months in jail or a fine of $5,000, although most get time served, and a criminal record with the prospect of harsher treatment on later offenses.

The Border Patrol holding and processing facility I visited has a capacity 400 detainees, but it was empty, except for the staff. According to the Mexican consulate, the total number of Mexicans in local jails has also dropped in recent years, from 2,503 in 2006 to 1,610 in 2008, although it is climbing in 2009, perhaps due to the zero tolerance program.

While some illegal crossers are surely getting through, the days of easy access between legal ports of entry in this sector are clearly over, as long as the staffing, infrastructure, and policies are maintained. Relative control in El Paso also means that some illegal traffic is diverted to other sectors that have yet to receive as much funding and attention, or that were considered too dangerous by illegal entrants. And, there is now more pressure on the legal avenues.

Next: Don’t Mess With Texas – How the Lone Star State has helped get control of the border.