More illegal immigrants. More violence. More death. The public has had it. Now the Bush administration has a new plan. But will it matter?
Enter the law of unintended consequences. Instead of trying their luck along the Rio Grande and other traditional crossing spots, thousands of illegal aliens set their sights on the open desert of Arizona. In 1993, the Border Patrol made fewer than 1 in 10 of their arrests in Arizona. By 2000, the figure was nearly 37 percent. Coyotes, the cutthroat guides that lead illegal immigrants on their journey north, began charging in excess of $1,500 per head for brutal treks through the sun-baked desert. And the immigrants paid a price: Almost 150 died in the Arizona desert in the broiling summer of 2003. In the fiscal year that just ended, at least 460 people died along the southwest border. Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego, says the actual numbers of deaths could be two to three times as high.
Until now, the Department of Homeland Security's strategy has been to shift with the tide. Last year, the department, a hydra-headed behemoth fashioned from 22 different government agencies after 9/11, launched the Arizona Border Control Initiative, an effort that focused on a 261-mile stretch of border speckled with cholla cacti and dun-colored jack rabbits. In the past two years, the Border Patrol there has hired close to 1,000 agents.
Disappointments. The results, however, were not as significant as Washington might have hoped. Border Patrol officials made almost 439,000 arrests in the Tucson sector this past fiscal year, down 11 percent from the 491,771 they snagged the year before. T. J. Bonner, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, an agents' union, calls the DHS strategy the 400-year plan because that's how long he calculates it will take to bring security to the entire border at the agency's current pace. "Four hundred years ago," Bonner said recently, "we were setting up the first colony in Jamestown."
And the cat and mouse game only grows more complicated. The Border Patrol's Yuma sector, which includes the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, saw a staggering 54 percent jump in arrests in fiscal year 2005. The Border Patrol set up Camp Grip in the refuge two years ago--a shiny, silver trailer in the middle of a blasted white desert with eerie black-capped mountains. Summer temperatures here typically reach 120 degrees, earning the lone road through the desert the name Camino del Diablo, Devil's Highway. Rescue beacons--or "panic poles," as some agents call them--dot the desert, their placards in English and Spanish telling migrants, "You are in danger of dying if you do not summon for help." Most days, Border Patrol pilot Joe Dunn flies low over the desert floor in a Vietnam-era OH-6 Cayuse helicopter. "If we see signs [footprints] in the desert on Monday and we don't find the group," Dunn says, "we start checking for their dead bodies on Wednesday."
Targets. For the agents assigned to protect urban border areas--like Nogales, Ariz.--the work has also gotten more dangerous. "We are not going to back down or cater to thugs," says Chertoff. But it's scary out there. "We get showered with rocks out here almost every night," says Border Patrol agent Jose Garza, as his car inches along a dirt road tracing the rusted fence that separates Nogales from Mexico. Many agents in Nogales now drive "war wagons," Chevy Tahoes equipped with metal caging around the windows. Officers on the southwest border reported being assaulted at least 687 times in fiscal year 2005, a spike from just 384 the year before.