Sunday, December 15, 2013

Deadly border agent incidents cloaked in silence

Arizona Republic
December 15, 2013
by Bob Ortega and Rob O' Dell

ghost is haunting Nogales.

His face stares out from shop windows. It is plastered on handbills and painted on walls under the shadow of the U.S.-Mexican border fence here. Candles and doves are stenciled onto steel posts of the fence itself in his memory, each a promise not to forget the night, 14 months ago, when teenager Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez was shot 10 times in the back and head by one or more Border Patrol agents firing through the fence into Mexico.

Similar specters haunt other border towns in Arizona, Texas and California, with the families of the dead charging that Border Patrol agents time and again have killed Mexicans and U.S. citizens with impunity.

An Arizona Republic investigation has found Border Patrol agents who use deadly force face few, if any, public repercussions, even in cases in which the justification for the shooting seems dubious.
Since 2005, on-duty Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers have killed at least 42 people, including at least 13 Americans.

These deaths, all but four of which occurred along or near the southwest border, vary from strongly justifiable to highly questionable. CBP officials say agents who use excessive force are disciplined. But they won’t say who, when, or what discipline, with the exception of a short administrative leave. In none of the 42 deaths is any agent or officer publicly known to have faced consequences — not from the Border Patrol, not from Customs and Border Protection or Homeland Security, not from the Department of Justice, and not, ultimately, from criminal or civil courts.

Internal discipline is a black hole. There have been no publicly disclosed repercussions — even when, as has happened at least three times, agents shot unarmed teenagers in the back.

That appearance of a lack of accountability has been fed by a culture of secrecy about agents’ use of deadly force.

CBP leaders refuse to release their policies, calling them law-enforcement sensitive. They won’t disclose the names of agents who use deadly force. They won’t say, in any instance, whether deadly force was justified. The lack of transparency goes against the “best practices” that national police organizations recommend for dealing with deadly-force incidents.

The Republic found the vast majority of Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers respond to conflict with restraint. Even when facing potentially deadly force, most agents and officers don’t turn to their firearms. But agents who killed mostly did so under circumstances virtually identical to hundreds of encounters that other agents resolved without lethal force and without serious injuries to either side.

In the last four years, rock-throwing incidents accounted for eight of the 24 instances in which agents killed people. The Border Patrol considers rocks deadly weapons that justify lethal force, even though it is rare for agents to be injured in “rockings,” as they call them, and even though, as agents’ reports showed, several less-lethal long-distance weapons are highly effective against rock-throwers, The Republic found.

The vast majority of rockings take place in a few, well-known, mostly urban spots along the border. But the Border Patrol doesn’t require agents working in those areas to carry or use less-lethal alternatives.

And when agents use deadly force, investigations by CBP and the FBI can take years to be released, yet can be perfunctory, and are typically opaque.

The Republic reviewed nearly 1,600 use-of-force cases by the Border Patrol and CBP between 2010 and May 2012 — some 12,000 pages of documents that it took the agency nearly a year to release.
The Republic also examined many other documents relating to use-of-force deaths and use of firearms by agents since 2005. (CBP includes both Border Patrol agents, who work between ports of entry, and Customs and Border Protection officers, who work at ports of entry.)

The investigation offers the most comprehensive look to date into the use of force by CBP and the Border Patrol, which, with roughly 43,000 agents and officers, comprise the country’s largest law-enforcement body.

Border Patrol agents do face dangers. Of the 22 who died in the line of duty in the last nine years, most died in vehicle or training accidents. Four died in direct conflicts with aggressors – including one case in which Border Patrol agents fired on one another.

Of the 42 use-of-force fatalities, some — such as the five cases in which agents shot and killed people who fired at them first — provoked little dispute.

But in nine of the 24 use-of-force deaths since 2010, agents’ accounts were contradicted by other witnesses or by other law-enforcement officers. In three cases, widely distributed videos conflicted with agents’ reports of what happened.

In reviewing these incidents, The Republic filed more than 120 Freedom of Information Act and public-records requests (and many appeals) with six federal departments or agencies and seven states.

Often, records were heavily redacted and incomplete. For example, The Republic documented, through other sources, four deaths at the hands of agents that were not included in CBP’s nearly 1,600 use-of-force incident reports. In many reports, the information is so incomplete that it’s impossible to determine what happened.

Because of that lack of transparency, it can be difficult to determine the truth when agents’ accounts differ from witnesses.

Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, in a recent report requested by members of Congress, found that many agents don’t understand their use-of-force policy. Before the report was publicly released, DHS and CBP officials blacked out recommendations that agents being assaulted with rocks should respond with less-lethal alternatives.

Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher insisted agents will continue to use deadly force against rock throwers, because rocks are potentially deadly weapons.

CBP, Homeland Security and Border Patrol officials declined repeated interview requests, agreeing only to a limited, off-the-record discussion from which the agency would approve a few limited statements. CBP officials declined to discuss the agency’s lack of transparency on the record.

But Acting Deputy CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said CBP doesn’t control the release of information or pace of investigations, pointing to the FBI and Homeland Security.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the architects of a immigration reform bill in the U.S. Senate that would increase the size of the Border Patrol, said border agents have “a tough job.”

The senator added: “Any loss of life incurred in the course of Border Patrol duties, as with any other government agency, should be given a close look."

n the night he died, Oct. 10, 2012, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez told his grandmother, Taide Elena, that he was going to walk to the nearby Oxxo convenience store where his brother Diego worked, off Calle Internacional. That street runs below the border fence between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Ariz.

“It’s our neighborhood,” said Elena, sitting on the couch of her cinder-block home, her hands balled together, two days after her grandson was shot. “He was a good boy; he’d come and go. I didn’t think much about it.”

Elena had been minding the boys for several months. Their father died three years earlier; their mother, Araceli Rodriguez, was trying to get the bank where she worked to transfer her to Nogales.

Jose Antonio, 16, had taken the separation hard, she said. He’d had to suspend school when they ran short of money for his tuition, but he was excited about starting classes again the next week.

That night, as the boy neared Calle Internacional, police and Border Patrol agents across the border responded to a 911 call about men hoisting bundles of marijuana over the fence.

Nogales Police K-9 officer John Zuniga spotted two men trying to climb back into Mexico. Agents yelled at the men to come down, Zuniga wrote in his report. He “heard several rocks start hitting the ground, and I looked up and could see the rocks flying through the air.”

As he took his dog back to his car, Zuniga heard gunfire. He looked up and saw an agent at the fence. Based on ballistics reports from Sonora state police, at least one agent fired 14 hollow-point bullets from a standard-issue .40-caliber Heckler & Koch pistol through the fence, killing Elena Rodriguez.

The Border Patrol hasn’t released the incident report. It hasn’t identified the agent or agents involved. In an initial statement, officials said agents were assaulted with rocks.

“After verbal commands from agents to cease were ignored, one agent then discharged his service firearm. One of the subjects appeared to have been hit,” the statement said. Subsequently, the agency has declined to confirm whether more than one agent opened fire.

But neither Zuniga nor another Nogales police officer there reported hearing any shouted orders. Three witnesses on the Mexican side said they heard no shouts before the gunfire. Isidro Alvarado, a security guard, said Elena Rodriguez was walking about 20 feet ahead of him when two youths ran past them away from the fence. Then he heard gunshots and saw Elena Rodriguez fall.

CBP won’t make public its use-of-force policy. Agency officials have said agents are authorized to fire when they face potentially deadly force, including rocks. However, if they can do so safely, agents must issue a verbal warning before firing, a Homeland Security memo states.

Where Elena Rodriguez died, the Mexican side of the fence is about 25 feet lower than the U.S. side. Due to the arc that rocks thrown over the fence there would have to follow, it would be all but impossible for a rock thrown from Mexico to hit someone near the fence on the U.S. side. And the agent (or agents) would have had to be standing at the fence to fire through the 3 and 1/2-inch gaps between the bars.

Araceli Rodriguez, who now lives in Nogales, said that, when the FBI interviewed her, she believed that “they’re looking for some way to blame my son, some way to make it his fault.” She asked why CBP hasn’t released or let her attorney see video from a border-fence camera less than 50 yards from where her son was killed.

“Do you think … that if they had a video of my son throwing rocks, they wouldn’t have produced it by now? They wouldn’t have spread it for all the world to see? Of course they would have,” she said.
CBP officials declined to discuss the case, citing an ongoing FBI investigation.

hether Elena Rodriguez was simply walking by or was throwing rocks, the circumstances under which he was shot were similar to those in scores of other alleged “rocking” incidents that agents resolved without firearms.

Incident reports suggest that lookouts in Mexico often throw rocks at agents to try to help drug mules or undocumented migrants get away. In 2012, rockings accounted for nearly half of the 555 assaults on agents reported by CBP.

On the whole, agents rarely turn to deadly force. In the nearly 1,600 use-of-force incident reports reviewed by The Republic, agents resorted to gunfire about 4 percent of the time, and killed people less than 1 percent of the time from 2010 through May 2012.

Eight times since 2010, Border Patrol agents killed people whom they said were throwing rocks at them, including six across the border. But in at least 160 other reported cases, agents resolved cross-border rock-throwing with less-lethal weapons that can fire, for example, balls filled with pepper spray. In those cases, no one died and almost no one was seriously hurt — including the agents.
No agent has died from being hit with a rock; agents reported injuries in two of those 160 cross-border rockings.

CBP agents and officers can carry two categories of weapons: Lethal weapons include the H&K pistols issued to all agents and optional firearms such as shotguns and M-4 rifles. “Less lethal” weapons include close and long-range options.

For close range, agents must carry either cans of pepper spray or collapsible steel batons (which look like narrow baseball bats); most carry both.

Of the long-range less-lethal weapons, agents most commonly use two: The pepper-spray balls launching system, essentially a modified paintball gun, can fire more than 10 balls a second filled with pepper spray, letting agents saturate an area with irritating vapors. The longer-range FN-303, a rifle-style weapon, uses compressed air to shoot “kinetic impact” projectiles, which are meant to incapacitate people without killing them.

Agents who used those less-lethal weapons reported they were usually highly effective at stopping rock throwers.

On Sept. 10, 2010, an agent being assaulted with rocks from the same street where Elena Rodriguez would be killed wrote that he used his pepper-spray ball launcher to saturate the area, firing “volleys of four to six rounds each near where the assailants were throwing the rocks. The rock throwers retreated from the area without further incident.”

On April 5, 2011, another agent in the same area was trying to catch someone, “when I felt a rock strike me on my right shoulder blade. I immediately turned and started saturating the area with my pepper ball launching system as several more rocks were thrown at me … the situation was put under control. There were no injuries.”

The Border Patrol doesn’t require agents to be trained in, to carry or to use any of the long-range less-lethal devices. They are strictly optional. McAleenan said CBP is looking at giving agents more “less-lethal options in high risk areas,” among other possible changes.

arlos LaMadrid, a 19-year-old American, was smuggling marijuana when he was killed on March 21, 2011.

LaMadrid fled toward the Mexican border as Douglas police tried to pull over his Chevy Avalanche pickup truck. Douglas Police Officer Mark Gonzales, behind him, reported that LaMadrid jammed the truck to a stop as a Border Patrol Chevy Tahoe pulled up, colliding alongside. LaMadrid and a passenger leaped out and ran to a ladder. Someone already on top of the fence began hurling rocks at the Border Patrol vehicle.

As LaMadrid climbed the ladder, Border Patrol Agent Lucas Tidwell fired his handgun through the Tahoe’s windshield, then opened the door and fired four more shots, hitting LaMadrid four times in the back and thigh. LaMadrid died that afternoon at a Sierra Vista hospital.

Two and a half years later, LaMadrid’s mother, Guadalupe Guerrero, says that her son’s actions didn’t justify killing him.

“If they’d arrested him, charged him, taken him to court, that wouldn’t have mattered,” Guerrero said. “But the Border Patrol took matters into their own hands.... The badge isn’t a license to kill.”

Immediately after the shooting, the Border Patrol whisked Tidwell back to the Douglas station. They declined to allow him to be interviewed by the Douglas police or the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, noted a sheriff’s report. Under the Border Patrol’s union contract, agents must be allowed to meet with union representatives and attorneys before deciding whether to speak with investigators.
That afternoon, FBI Agents Jeremy Nielsen and Kyle Fisher met with the Border Patrol, the county sheriff and Douglas police, the sheriff’s report noted. The agents said the bureau would look into whether any crimes were committed against Tidwell. The bureau left it to the sheriff’s office to investigate whether the shooting of LaMadrid was justified. Douglas Price, the agent in charge of the FBI Phoenix Division, said that in joint investigations the local sheriff’s office typically handles homicides.

But the Cochise detectives had to do so without any access to Tidwell. Based on their findings – which included a video from a border camera that showed someone on the fence making a throwing motion – Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer decided not to prosecute. The DOJ held the case open for more than two years before announcing last August that it wouldn’t pursue charges against Tidwell. The FBI said cases are often open two years or more; Justice officials wouldn’t comment on why this case was open so long.

Tidwell “followed appropriate protocols; he defended himself; he wasn’t disciplined or anything for it,” by the Border Patrol, said Tidwell’s attorney, Sean Chapman. In a press release, the Justice Department said “LaMadrid was in the line of fire,” and that “there is insufficient evidence ... to disprove that the agent was acting in self-defense when he fired at the rock thrower and mistakenly struck the victim.”

Border Patrol agents or CBP officers are rarely charged with using excessive use of force or violating someone’s civil rights by killing them. In part, that’s because agents, like other law-enforcement officers, tend to be given the benefit of the doubt by federal investigators.

The Department of Justice has not been able to show any cases in which it recommended civil or criminal charges against a CBP agent or officer who killed in the line of duty in at least the past six years. An extensive review by The Republic also found no instances.

The public, too, tends to give agents the benefit of the doubt.

In 2005, two Border Patrol agents in Texas, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, shot, but didn’t kill, an unarmed drug smuggler who was fleeing. They tried to cover up the incident by falsifying reports, destroying evidence and lying to investigators.

They were convicted in 2006 on various charges and sentenced to more than a decade each in federal prison, but a swell of public pressure led President George W. Bush to commute their sentences on his last day in office.

In 2007, Rheinheimer, the Cochise County attorney, charged Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Corbett with second-degree murder after Corbett shot to death Francisco Dominguez Rivera, 22, an undocumented migrant. Corbett maintained that Dominguez Rivera had thrown rocks at him; after two trials ended in hung juries, Rheinheimer opted not to to try Corbett a third time.

In some cases, the investigations have been perfunctory.

On Jan. 4, 2010, Border Patrol Agent Miguel Torres Vasquez shot to death Jorge Alfredo Solis Palma, an undocumented migrant, on a trail east of Douglas. Solis Palma, 28, had thrown rocks at Agent Neil Hamby and his dog, and other agents. Torres Vasquez chased him for 600 yards, then shot him, a Cochise County Sheriff’s report states.

By the next afternoon, the Border Patrol’s critical incident team decided the shooting was justified, citing two agents saying that Solis Palma was in the motion of throwing a rock. That same day, the FBI’s Fisher and Nielsen (also the agents in the LaMadrid case), cited the incident team’s report and recommended no further FBI investigation. Price said such determinations can be made quickly by investigators on the scene.

The FBI held the case open for more than two years; but documents obtained by The Republic show no updates to the FBI’s Solis Palma file from the day after the shooting through Aug. 13, 2013, when the heavily redacted file was disclosed.

But was the case so open-and-shut? Cochise County detectives interviewed the Border Patrol witnesses. Agent Leon Shaw, said he saw Solis raise his hand, the nearest witness, Agent Adrian Suazo, said that Solis Palma had his hands and arms cradled in front of him, as though he were holding rocks. But he wasn’t making a throwing motion, nor had he raised his hands, when Torres Vasquez shot him.

Nevertheless, Cochise County, too, closed its investigation without charges.

In use-of-force investigations, CBP and the Border Patrol decline to identify the agents involved, often fighting in court to block the release of names even of agents being sued by the families of those killed. (Those named here were identified in court files or in documents obtained from state investigations.) The FBI also redacts agents’ names from any documents it releases. It can be very difficult for the families to find out what happened or why.

Officials at CBP and at the agents’ union said agents have been disciplined for using excessive force. But they won’t say who, how many or when. “Agents are subjected to incredible scrutiny,” union attorney Jim Calle said. “But the process is exceedingly opaque.”

This lack of transparency is not the norm at many law-enforcement agencies.

The same month as the shooting of Elena Rodriguez, Texas State Trooper Miguel Avila killed two undocumented migrants hidden under a tarp in the bed of a fleeing pickup; Avila hit them while trying, from a helicopter, to shoot out the truck’s tires as it sped toward a school zone near the town of La Joya.

Within a week, the Texas Department of Public Safety released Avila’s identity and numerous details, including maps showing the truck’s route and where it was fired on. The department also said Avila was being reassigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of the investigation.

Texas DPS announced an internal review of its policies on firing from aircraft. In February, the department changed its policy, barring shooting from the sky unless the aircraft had been fired upon or agents believed a deadly weapon – apart from the vehicle – was about to be used.

DPS’s findings were presented to a Hidalgo County grand jury; it declined to indict Avila, saying he had been following DPS policy.

iudad Juarez, which borders El Paso, for several recent years was among the deadliest cities in the world, as drug cartels battled for control of a key smuggling route.

But Maria Guadalupe Guereca never worried about letting her son Sergio, 15, accompany his older brother Omar to the Paso del Norte border crossing. It seemed a safe place for Sergio to play or hang out with friends while his brother worked in maintenance on the bridge connecting the border towns.

Then, on June 7, 2010, Sergio was shot to death by Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa Jr. Sergio and other youths had been running back and forth across the dry bed of the Rio Grande to the metal fence on the U.S. side. The FBI and CBP, without naming Mesa, said an agent fired in self-defense after he was surrounded by rock throwers.

But several cellphone videos taken from the nearby bridge later surfaced. They appear to show a different story.

Mesa wasn’t surrounded. He had tried to intercept four youths running back to Mexico across the river bed, grabbing one as the others fled. In one video, some youths can clearly be seen making throwing motions. But Guereca isn’t among them. He’s visible, peeping out from behind a pillar beneath a train trestle. He sticks his head out; Mesa fires; and the boy falls to the ground, dead.

“Why kill him? What had he done?” asked Maria Guadalupe Guereca, looking down at the spot where her son died.

The Department of Justice said last year there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Mesa on criminal or civil charges.

Attorney Cristobal Galindo, who represents Guareca’s family, said he believes three separate videos show the agent wasn’t surrounded and that a Department of Justice inquiry indicated Sergio Guereca didn’t throw any rocks. The family’s suit was dismissed by a federal district court judge in Texas, who said the court lacked jurisdiction since the victim wasn’t a U.S. citizen and his death took place on foreign soil. The case is now on appeal.

The family’s attorneys argue that the district court’s decision would in effect create a zone along the border where neither Mexican nor U.S. law would apply to any agent who fired across the border.

“Such a dangerous, implausible decision – giving the Executive the unreviewable discretion to take wholly innocent, civilian life – would be literally unprecedented,” wrote family attorney Bob Hilliard. The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of groups have joined in that appeal.

Shootings near the border fence near urban areas are the likeliest to be taped on CBP cameras. Not so in remote areas.

Jesus Castro Romo was among 12 undocumented migrants caught in a remote part of Arizona on Nov. 16, 2010. Romo ran, but couldn’t evade Border Patrol Agent Abel Canales, who was on horseback. He shot Romo in the side.

Canales’ incident report lacks any explanation for why he opened fire. Canales told the FBI Romo threatened him with a rock. Romo, who now is disabled and lives in Nogales, Sonora, tells a different story.

“As we were walking back to the others, he kept hitting me with his lariat. He wouldn’t stop hitting me, so I ran again. And that’s when he shot me,” said Romo, sitting in a wheelchair. “He said, ‘Yeah, how’d it have been if you’d hit me in the head with a rock? I said, ‘Who grabbed a rock? I didn’t grab any rock.’ ”

Romo sued the U.S. government in January 2012. That case continues. Government attorneys deny any wrongdoing by the agent. Canales, meanwhile, was indicted by a federal grand jury in October 2011 — not for shooting Romo, but for corruption, accused of taking bribes to let vehicles carrying drugs or undocumented migrants pass the Interstate 19 checkpoint south of Tucson. In August 2012, he pleaded guilty to one count of bribery and was sentenced to eight months in prison.

To date, the fiercest criticism for the disconnect between agents’ versions of what happened came after the May 28, 2010, death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas at the San Ysidro border crossing south of San Diego. Officers said he was aggressive, even after being shocked with a Taser; but cellphone videos showed him begging for help, facedown on the ground, as a dozen agents shocked and struck him.

Sixteen members of Congress demanded that Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General investigate excessive force by CBP and the Border Patrol in this and other cases.

Hernandez’s widow, Maria Pugo, filed a wrongful-death suit. Her attorney, Eugene Iredale, demanded to see the videos from CBP’s cameras.

“San Ysidro is the busiest land crossing in the world; they have millions of crossings a year, and there are video cameras throughout the facility,” Iredale said. “But somehow, the video cameras weren’t turned on, or they were facing the other way. I could say something cynical, but I don’t need to. We have no video from any of the government cameras at the border.”

The FBI’s investigation remains open. The family’s lawsuit is moving toward trial.

omeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released its redacted findings on CBP’s use of force in September.

The review concluded that many CBP officers and Border Patrol agents don’t understand when and how much force they’re allowed to use. Inspectors said they couldn’t figure out how many allegations of excessive force there have been, or how many CBP investigated, because CBP doesn’t directly track such allegations or its own investigations. Hundreds of records had so little information that inspectors couldn’t determine what happened.

The Republic’s review of incident reports found similar issues. The report for the Carlos LaMadrid shooting, for example, has no narrative at all. Nor is there any narrative in one of the most notorious incidents — the December 2010 death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. He was shot to death in Arizona’s Peck Canyon by a suspected “rip” crew (bandits who prey on drug smugglers).

Two of the weapons found at the scene were later linked to the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking operation, in which the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed guns to be sold to known criminals in an effort to trace the flow of weapons to Mexican drug cartels. The incident report is so incomplete that it would be impossible to tell, merely from the report itself, that an agent died.

As part of the OIG review, the DHS asked the Police Executive Research Forum, a non-profit police chiefs’ research association, to look at how the CBP reviews use-of-force incidents. At the agency’s insistence, all the forum’s recommendations were redacted before the report was released. CBP Southwest Border Chief Bill Brooks would only say: “It is CBP’s standard practice to provide a short period of administrative leave to personnel involved in serious use-of-force incidents.”

The report didn’t discuss specific incidents or whether they were properly investigated. It called on CBP to improve how it identifies and tracks information, and to begin using that information to train agents and figure out how its policies are working.

In November, Border Patrol Chief Fisher told the Associated Press that, any recommendations notwithstanding, agents will continue to use deadly force against rock-throwers.

any prominent law-enforcement agencies, including the New York and Los Angeles police departments and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office make their use-of-force policies public.

By contrast, even though CBP officials insist that their use-of-force policies follow federal guidelines, the agency refuses to disclose any copies. Several years ago, in response to a lawsuit by the ACLU, CBP released a copy of its policies — with nearly every single word redacted. CBP officials wouldn’t discuss, on the record, their reasons for withholding the policy.

The Republic obtained a 2004 copy of CBP’s use-of-force policy handbook, along with limited information about revisions made in 2010.

The current policy allows agents to use deadly force when they believe there is imminent danger of death or serious injury to themselves or another person, Border Patrol Chief Fisher has said. The 2004 policy stated agents may shoot fleeing suspects only if there is probable cause to believe the person committed a felony causing serious injury or death and poses an imminent danger of death to another person. The policy doesn’t specifically address if rocks are considered deadly weapons.
In general, officers are supposed to use the minimum force necessary.

Officials at the Police Executive Research Forum said their CBP contract prevents them from discussing their redacted recommendations.

But the police forum has published two guides on use of force “best practices.” The Republic’s review found that CBP policies are often nearly the opposite of these recommendations, which are in italics.

Collect and analyze use of force data to identify trends and patterns; act on that data. CBP tracks use of force incidents; but reports often lack key information that would be necessary to identify trends and patterns. OIG noted CBP doesn’t track allegations of excessive force or assaults on agents that don’t result in use of force. CBP declined to discuss whether and how it analyzes the data but provided a statement that it is “working to improve the reporting system.”

Officers should articulate and document their reasons for a particular use of force in a given situation. One-fifth of the nearly 1,600 incident reports included no description whatsoever about the incident; hundreds more fail to say why they used force.

Demonstrate to the community that the agency is accountable to the public when force is used.
Provide as much information as possible to the public as soon as possible. Inform the public about the outcome of investigations into use of force. CBP typically issues brief press releases after deadly incident, but families of those killed consistently said it was difficult or impossible to get more information. CBP doesn’t release outcomes of internal investigations.

When force is used inappropriately, acknowledge the mistake as soon as possible. CBP officials couldn’t provide, nor could The Republic find, an example in which CBP acknowledged excessive use of force.

Be as open and transparent as possible. As noted, CBP officials won’t even discuss transparency on the record.

“The Border Patrol is a very paramilitary, very top-down, authoritarian institution, internally,” said Josiah Heyman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso who has conducted field research with the agency. “DHS cloaks itself with the mantle of national security and holds a lot of information back from the public. We’re not actually talking about issues or tactics, intelligence or surveillance … how do you justify holding back use-of-force guidelines and training materials from the public?”

The National Border Patrol Council, the agents’ union, has argued vehemently against any changes in use-of-force policies. Before CBP updated its policies in 2010, it took three years to negotiate the changes with the council and the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers.

After CBP officials said recently they’ll test dashboard-mounted video cameras (and possibly lapel cameras) to reduce the use of force and protect agents against false accusations, the union condemned the idea. Union Vice President Shawn Moran said the use of lapel cameras “would result in more injured and murdered agents.”

The union also condemned any new limits on the use of deadly force, saying agents “work in a unique environment and encounter threats that are not often seen by police and sheriff’s departments.”

Statistically, it’s safer to be a Border Patrol agent than a police officer. Much safer. In 2012, local police and sheriff’s deputies in Arizona were more than five times likelier than Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border to be assaulted, and four times likelier to be assaulted with deadly weapons, based on CBP and FBI data.

here is limited pressure for change.

“Mexico wants to know what measures will be taken so these incidents don’t happen,” said Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribreña. Mexico delivers a diplomatic complaint each time a Mexican citizen is killed by border agents. Mexico notes cross-border shootings violate an agreement between the countries.

But Mexico’s complaints have had no apparent impact. In the U.S., a coalition of border and human-rights groups took family members of some of those killed to Capitol Hill in late November to push lawmakers for reforms.

“Authorities need to understand that this is not a case of a bad apple or two, it’s a systemic problem,” said Andrea Guerrero, co-chair of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. “This agency has a problem with accountability and transparency, and they don’t see it.”

Historically, the Border Patrol and CBP have come under less public pressure over use-of-force than local police forces, said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, “because you don’t have the same kind of local constituency, the layer of citizen response, that local police forces have.”

But that’s changing, Alpert said. With the growing use of technology, it will be harder for questionable incidents to slip through, he said. “But the numbers I’ve seen, even more than it protects the suspect, it protects the officer from false complaints.”

On Nov. 25, three days after meeting with Guadalupe Guerrero and other family members, 20 members of Congress asked to meet with acting CBP Commissioner Thomas Winkowski to discuss how to make the agency more transparent and accountable. That meeting is pending.

In Ciudad Juarez, Maria Guadalupe Guereca has low expectations that U.S. courts will hold agents accountable in her son’s death.

“I don’t think we’ll see justice,” she said, “just because we’re Mexican.”

In Nogales, Araceli Rodriguez’s job takes her downtown, near the border fence, every morning. Each time she sees a Border Patrol car or an agent on the U.S. side, she says, she asks herself if that might be the one who killed her son.

“If my son had been the shooter, if he had been the one who killed them, would they have waited a year in demanding justice against him? Would he still be free?” Rodriguez asked, on the first anniversary of her son’s death. “Of course not. Of course not. The Mexican government would have extradited him immediately.

“They killed a child,” she said, her voice trembling. “And they’ve done nothing about it… I don’t want excuses. I want to know who killed my son. I want justice.”

That evening, several hundred protesters joined her and her family in a march to the border fence. They wore t-shirts calling for “Justicia!” They held white balloons and candles. Some waved hand-shaped signs, in Spanish, saying, “Not one more death.”

As they marched, shopkeepers and customers came out; some joined the marchers. Outside a barber shop, one man asked what the demonstration was about.

“The boy who was killed by La Migra,” said a marcher. The man nodded. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Everyone here knows about that.”

Later than night, when everyone had gone home, if you looked through the fence, only the ghostly image of Jose Antonio painted on a wall, half-hidden by the shadows of the fence’s bars, remained.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cross-border posada ties Joseph, Mary's journey to that of modern migrants

Arizona Daily Star
December 11, 2013
by Perla Trevizo

DOUGLAS — Separated by steel bars that divide Agua Prieta and Douglas, participants in a cross-border posada Tuesday recalled Joseph and Mary’s journey in search for lodging — and the journey of all the migrant families.

About 70 people gathered on both sides of the border to celebrate the binational posada, where participants on the Mexican side asked for refuge in the United States. Community members and migrants taking part in the event sang an adaptation of the traditional lyrics where one group asks for refuge while the other declines until they arrive at a home where they are welcomed.

“It’s a reminder to open our homes, our churches and our community to those who aren’t from here,” said Mark Adams of the binational ministry Frontera de Cristo. “And by doing so we are welcoming Christ.”

On Tuesday, instead of seeking refuge in homes, participants sang stanzas through the border fence that told the story of a migrant who left her children behind because she had no other option.

But at the end, instead of those in the United States letting the migrants in, the Douglas participants crossed into Mexico through the port of entry and sang their way to the Resource Center for Migrants, where they shared hot chocolate and sweet bread.

Even if they didn’t find shelter in their final destination, migrants who participated said it was a blessing to have found a welcoming place when they needed it the most.

Hermilo Santizo Gonzalez, 19, tried to cross through Naco last week with his 16-year-old cousin but the pair was quickly apprehended and deported.

He said he is grateful for the shelter and support he found in Agua Prieta, even if his dream of migrating to the United States didn’t come true.

“I am just grateful for how they’ve treated me here and that we are healthy,” he said during the posada, before he and his cousin headed to the bus station to go back to Chiapas.

“Many people get hurt during the journey but we will be able to go back and be with our families,” he said.

For Reyna Martinez and and her husband Francisco Garcia, a couple from Honduras who were heading to the United States when she gave birth to her son Francisco, their search for a better life ended in Mexico.

“Here we’ve been welcomed and found a lot of support,” she said outside the center.

She said they left their native Honduras in search of a better life and now they’ve found it. Her husband is working in a factory.

“The community might be divided by a fence but its united by our faith,” said Adams.

The posada was hosted by the binational ministry Frontera de Cristo, La Parroquia de la Sagrada Familia and the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta. This year’s theme was families united without borders, given a record number of deportations during the Obama administration, Adams said.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pharr PD: Salvadoran man loses pinky finger to border fence

The Monitor
November 18, 2013
by Daniella Diaz

PHARR — A man who scaled the border fence wound up losing a finger after it got caught in the fence, authorities said.

Friday night, police responded to a call from U.S. Customs and Border Protection about a 22-year-old man from El Salvador who had jumped the fence, according to a Pharr police news release.
Police found Hector Anibal Aguila lying in the grass under the bridge, holding his hand up, according to the release. He told police that his hand got caught along the fence and it severed his right pinky finger.
He was transported to Knapp Medical Center in Weslaco for treatment and then was turned over to Border Patrol.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Bishop Flores: Border wall is a 'psychological scar' for South Texas

Rio Grande Guardian
November 28, 2013
by Steve Taylor

BROWNSVILLE, November 28 - The border wall has caused a psychological scar for the communities of South Texas, says Bishop Daniel Flores of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.
Flores said he can see the border wall from his office in Brownsville. He said the border wall is just a few blocks south of the basilica in San Juan, and when he gives mass in Escobares, he can walk about 150 feet from the church and he is at the border wall. “As a rule, the bishops in the United States did not think the fence was a good idea. Personally, myself and my family have roots on both sides of the border. Most families here have that. It is kind of a psychological scar across the heart of a very culturally rich place,” Flores said. Asked by a reporter to elaborate on why the border wall is a psychological scar, Flores said: “For 150, 200, years, the relationship here in the Valley and further up the river the relationship between Texas and Mexico has been a familial one. Things have changed somewhat radically over the last 25 years or so. But the fence in a certain way becomes a symbol that, that these are two worlds that cannot have any connection,” Flores said. “It has a symbolic value that I think is unpleasant to contemplate because a scar is a scar. It cuts through the middle and it separates. A fence separates whereas the river is respectful; it is a respectful, more fluid thing, respectful of two independent nations. Most people who live on the other side of the border are very happy to live in Mexico. They don’t particularly want to live in the United States; nice place to visit, I wouldn’t want to live there. “For whatever reason, people sometimes feel they have to come but it becomes a sort of sign of an inability to control and that is why it becomes kind of a psychological sort of wound, it does. It is there. Thanks be to God, we still have a lot of movement back and forth, all the bridges along the way. And families still have their relationships and things like that but it did not always exist there and we pray God one day it won’t have to exist there. That is the way I would put it.” Flores spoke about immigration and border security with reporters on Friday while unveiling a letter signed by 13 border bishops from northern Mexico, Texas and New Mexico who are concerned about the plight of families that have been separated due to flawed immigration policies. Click here to read both the English and Spanish versions of the letter from the border bishops. “This letter in particular is directed to the Church, that we should be particularly conscious of how to help families that are suffering, in many cases families that are facing separation because part of the family is documented and part of the family is not,” Flores said. “The Church has always had a responsibility to open itself up to the service of those who are suffering and the families are now suffering right now. So, parishes, social service organizations, things like that, all of our presence in the community should be particularly attentive to the needs of immigrant families.” Flores said the letter is also directed at the “political order,” those who are responsible for passing laws. He said they should not forget about immigration reform and not to let this moment pass. “I just think that this is something we all need to do: to make known that this is a human reality that needs to be addressed in an orderly way by those responsible for governing and that it would be a failure of governance if this were not addressed in a timely and just way.” The border bishops and Texas Catholic Conference have sent letters pushing for immigration reform in the past. Asked what difference the new letter might make, Flores said: “Yes, it is true, we have been saying this for a long time, the bishops of the United States have been saying it, the bishops of this region have been saying it; he bishops of the Americas have been saying it. We pray for it, we work for it but in a certain way we just do not tire of saying it because ultimately those responsible for governing have to take the responsibility to craft a reasonable, more just, system that is respectful of the needs of families. That’s what the Church will continue to talk about. We cannot sit back and complain about how it is that the family is falling apart in our society and yet tolerate a system of law that has as its goal the separation of families.” Asked if the Texas Catholic Conference has met with the Texas congressional delegation on the issue of immigration reform, Flores said: “The Texas Catholic Conference keeps in contact with our delegation. I meet with our own representatives, in the Valley you cross paths very easily and this is an issue I always try to raise with them. In general I think the congressional delegation along the border is attuned to this issue. Whenever you pass a law in the United States it requires a consensus of the whole country and there are parts of the country where there is more resistance to the possibility.” By way of example, Flores cited the Senate bill on immigration reform, which included much tougher border enforcement. “For the bishops this was very difficult because, frankly, to spend that much more money on a border that is already militarized in a certain way, in our view does not help the situation. Speaking as pastors, it is problematic. How much more can you militarize the border?”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Cornyn urges CBP to rethink border fence

El Paso Inc.
November 24, 2013
by David Crowder

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has weighed into the fray over plans to fill in the half-mile gap in the border fence at the historic site of the first Spanish crossing, Hart’s Mill and Old Fort Bliss.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, has organized a last-minute campaign to persuade U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, to reconsider the project and to work with El Paso leaders and stakeholders before proceeding.

On Wednesday, Cornyn wrote to Thomas Winkowski, CBP’s acting commissioner, after meeting with O’Rourke.

“I understand that the project is near significant cultural and historical sites, and I would strongly encourage you to work closely with the El Paso community to ensure preservation of sensitive areas,” Cornyn wrote.

Construction of the 17-foot steel wall was to start last Wednesday and even though it didn’t, Border Patrol spokesman Doug Mosier said CBP has notified the contractor to proceed.

Called by some the epicenter of El Paso’s history, the site on West Paisano Drive is now in the midst of several large construction projects.

They include taking down the Yandell Street overpass while putting up massive concrete supports for the toll road that will complete the last leg of Loop 375.

In his letter, Cornyn noted that CBP “conducted Environmental Stewardship Plans to consider the impact of the proposed pedestrian fencing on significant historic sites in the Hart’s Mill area.”

The result of that survey was that “the project would not result in significant impacts to cultural resources in October 2011.”

“While I recognize the efforts of CBP to consider sensitive resources in the region I would urge you to coordinate closely with local stakeholders and consider any further action which may be necessary to balance project goals with historic preservation,” Cornyn’s letter concluded.

O’Rourke’s chief of staff, David Wysong, said Winkowski “is the only one who could, theoretically, halt it.”

Six signers

On Tuesday, Winkowski received a similar letter signed by O’Rourke and five more House members: Democrats Pete Gallego, Filemon Vela and Rubén Hinojosa of Texas, and from California, Democrats Tony Cárdenas and Eric Swalwell.

Their letter, stronger than Cornyn’s, refers to the site as the place where Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande in 1598, a rocky ford that came to be known as the Paso del Norte.

“The proposed fence construction is antithetical to Congress’ intentions in establishing Oñate’s crossing as part of the National Historic Trail in October 2000 and will hamper future development and improvements to this site that adequately reflect its historical and cultural significance,” their letter states.

They call on the Border Patrol to delay construction.

“Preserving the historic significance of this area should be our first priority and we strongly believe that a compromise can be reached,” the representatives’ letter continues.

It notes that the El Paso sector has a 93-percent level of operational control, which far exceeds other sectors on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This has contributed to the recognition of El Paso as the safest city in America for the third straight year,” the letter reads. “It seems that there is little need to construct additional fence from a safety perspective when taxpayer dollars could be used more effectively in other areas of the border.”

Border Patrol spokesman Mosier said that while Congress has set aside some environmental and archaeological protections to speed the fence, CBP “has made a commitment to responsible environmental stewardship.”

In an email, Mosier said, “Specific to the Hart’s Mill area, in order to protect cultural resources, CBP conducted intensive cultural resources surveys and consulted with the Texas state historic preservation office, who concurred with CBP’s determination that no significant impacts to cultural resources would occur as a result of fence construction,”

The CBP has arranged to have an independent environmental monitor on-site during fence construction, Mosier added.

Although the site has never been developed as a tourist attraction beyond construction of historic markers, the Texas Historical Commission’s executive director Mark Wolfe, in a Nov. 19 letter, said the National Park Service has recognized it as a “high potential site.”

Wolfe, the state’s historic preservation officer, told El Paso Inc. that his agency agrees with CBP’s archaeological review that determined “no features of concern would be disturbed by the project.”

Property owner Chip Johns said he wonders when the archaeological review was conducted and by whom. He owns the acreage that takes in the Oñate crossing, the Old Fort Bliss officers’ barracks and the mid-1800s home of Simeon Hart, best known as the Hacienda Restaurant, which is now closed.

“If they came on the property, they never asked me,” Johns said, adding he finds it hard to believe there is nothing of historical or archaeological significance in the path of the fence, given that it was a very busy place for hundreds of years.

Wolfe sent his letter to state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, who conceded that neither the city nor the county have done anything to protect or develop the site. But that’s no reason not to protect it, he said.

“The mayor and City Council ought to be involved in preventing the federal government from going forward,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t lose another one of our historic treasures.”

O’Rourke, he said, is doing everything he can “but it’s up to the federal government to step back and reassess the project.”

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser was ill and could not be reached for a comment, but city spokeswoman Juli Lozano released a statement from him saying O’Rourke has kept him up to date on the issue.

“I want to stress that at this time, the city is allowing Congressman O’Rourke to handle the issue and will rely on his diligence to do what is necessary to address the issues,” the statement says.

Johns was surprised last Thursday when two O’Rourke’s staffers, district representative Mario Porras and intern Dana Ramos, showed up at the site to see if construction had begun. “Hot damn, it’s amazing and kind of hard to believe that someone in Washington is actually doing what they say they’re going to do,” Johns said of O’Rourke. “He’s picked up the ball and run with it. How far he’ll get, who knows?”

Border fence to be built at Juan de Oñate crossing, site of Hart’s Mill and the first Fort Bliss

Newspaper Tree
November 22, 2013
Alberto Tomas Halpern

The Department of Homeland Security or DHS, which oversees the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection or CBP, will build approximately 0.6 miles of additional border fencing near the historic Hart’s Mill area of El Paso.

Federal and local officials oppose the fencing, citing historical and environmental concerns.

The fence will be built at a site where Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande in 1598 as he and his band of settlers made their way north from Mexico City. Oñate’s path became a major trade route for the next 300 years, bringing livestock and trade goods into the U.S. The route also introduced new cultures to a westward expanding America.

In 2000, Oñate’s trail was added to the National Trails System and is called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail. It is noted for being the oldest route leading north out of Mexico.

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 amended a 1996 law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, charging DHS to construct physical barriers and reinforced fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. The amended law gives authority to the DHS secretary to waive environmental laws in order to build border barriers expediently.

The Secure Fence Act, in part, provided for fencing from five miles west of the Columbus, New Mexico port of entry to ten miles east of El Paso, though gaps in fencing exist in sections along the way.

According to Border Patrol and CBP spokesman Bill Brooks, the latest construction of fencing is a continuation of a previous fence project.

The fence that will be built is what CBP calls a “pedestrian fence,” meant to stop pedestrians and vehicles from crossing. Brooks said the fence will look similar to what already exists near the area, which includes layers of thick wires crossed over one another.

Brooks explained that the notice to proceed with construction was issued on Wednesday, November 20.
The fencing contractor is C3 Construction, an Arizona-based company. Newspaper Tree observed no construction activity at the area the day the notice was issued.

Construction is expected to be completed sometime next spring.

Brooks described CBP as committed to responsible environmental stewardship, despite the environmental law waiver. He added that CBP conducted an intensive cultural resources survey and consulted with the Texas Historical Commission. The historical commission, Brooks said, agreed with CBP’s determination that the fence construction would have no significant impact on cultural resources.

Mark Wolfe, the executive director and state historic preservation officer at the Texas Historical Commission, told Newspaper Tree that CBP contracted with Gulf South Research Corporation, a Louisiana environmental consulting firm, to conduct an archeological review of the area in 2011.

Wolfe said CBP’s study showed that no historical or cultural resources would be disturbed by the fence, nor would it have an adverse affect on the appearance of historic buildings. The study was reviewed by the historical commission’s archaeological, historical and architectural divisions, all of whom agreed that the fence would have no significant impacts.

“That’s the extent of our review,” Wolfe said, noting that his agency did not conduct its own independent study. “We don’t have the budget for that. Our decisions are based on the information provided (by CBP).”

Wolfe explained that the Texas Historical Commission does not have the authority to delay or halt federal projects, even if they disagree with the findings of federal agencies. If they do find that federal projects would negatively impact historic sites, the historical commission can work with agencies to mitigate those affects.

“What we do is we comment on the undertaking proposed by the federal agency,” Wolfe said. He added, “The whole purpose of it is for federal agencies to step back and think about the implications.”

In the case of the fence in the Hart’s Mill area, Wolfe says CBP did consider those implications. “So the process, I think, works.”

In 2009, the El Paso city council unanimously adopted a resolution opposing the construction of border fences. The resolution says in part, “Across the world, walls erected to divide peoples and nations are symbols of failed and repressive efforts to thwart human freedom and prosperity.”

Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX 16) was a city representative in 2009 and joined in supporting the city resolution.

The recent news of the fence construction prompted him to write letters of opposition to CBP and Border Patrol officials, citing the historical and cultural value of the area.

In his letters, O’Rourke stresses the history of El Paso’s Hart’s Mill area, describing Oñate’s crossing near the area, the Hart’s Mill residence and the establishment of the original Fort Bliss in the area.

“[T]he historical significance of this area to our country, the state of Texas, and City of El Paso is immense,” O’Rourke said.

He described Oñate’s crossing in the area as the first Thanksgiving celebration in the United States.

“As a point of comparison, if the Border Patrol were to propose the construction of a fence at Plymouth Rock I am sure Congressional representatives and the surrounding community would object based on its importance as a symbol in American history,” O’Rourke said. “The proposed fence construction at Hart’s Mill should be viewed no differently.”

Joining O’Rourke in opposition to the fencing, in a November 19 letter to CBP commissioner Thomas Winkowski, are congressmen Pete Gallego (D-TX 23), Tony Cardenas (D-CA 29), Filemon Vela (D-TX 34), Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX 15), and Eric Swalwell (D-CA 15).

O’Rourke added that more fencing is unnecessary in El Paso, since the sector is at a level of operational control that exceeds that of other parts along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It seems that there is little need to construct additional fence from a safety perspective when taxpayer dollars could be used more effectively in other areas of the border,” O’Rourke told Winkowski.

According to Border Patrol data, apprehensions of undocumented crossers in the El Paso sector are at their lowest level in 20 years. In 1993, the Border Patrol reported 258,781 apprehensions in the El Paso sector. In 2012, that number fell to 9,678 apprehensions (see chart “Total Illegal Alien Apprehensions By Fiscal Year” in slideshow, above).

In late September, during a visit to the border fence near Sunland Park, New Mexico, El Paso Border Patrol Sector spokesman Ramiro Cordero attributed the reduction in apprehensions and El Paso’s safety to the fence.

“Fences make good neighbors,” Cordero said. He added, “You have Ciudad Juarez in 2008, 2009, 2010 as the most dangerous city in the world, the worst in the world. And El Paso was what? And continues to be: the safest city in the nation. What a contrast.”

Cordero stated that critics of border fences are wrong in saying they divide communities.

“You don’t see people, cousins, coming up to the middle of the river to talk to each other,” he said. “This has nothing to do with dividing communities, absolutely nothing. This is to protect people.”

Cordero concedes that border fences, while designed to deter people from scaling them, can be overcome, but with much difficulty.

He asked rhetorically, “Can you climb it? Oh yeah.”

Still, he thinks the fences do slow down would-be border crossers and are an effective tool.

O’Rourke noted that several local officials, including State Senator Jose Rodriguez, County Judge Veronica Escobar, County Commissioner Patrick Abeln, Mayor Oscar Leeser and City Representative Cortney Niland, were also concerned about the construction of the fence.

Rodriguez said in a statement that he was opposed to a border fence when he was the county attorney and he continues to oppose it as a senator.

“This portion of the wall will harm historical resources of national significance. It’s extremely unfortunate that local concerns and even federal rules can be disregarded in order to impose this expensive and unnecessary wall on communities that don’t want it,” he said.

Mayor Leeser issued a statement to Newspaper Tree, saying that the upcoming construction of the fence is being monitored at the federal level by O’Rourke and that the congressman is keeping the city informed on the issue.

“I want to stress that at this time the City is allowing Congressman O’Rourke to handle the issue and will rely on his diligence to do what is necessary to address the issues,” Leeser stated.

Commissioner Abeln’s concerns were similar to O’Rourke’s and he thinks more thought should have been taken in considering whether a fence should be built in the area.

“To fence that off is like fencing off a piece of history,” Abeln said. “It is just a disappointment to me because it’s another place where we have failed to realize the history of our community.”

Abeln pondered how history could have been very different if border fences existed in the 16th Century.
“Had they put that fence in 1598, maybe Juan de Oñate would not have crossed,” he surmised.

Abeln made clear that he supports federal law enforcement officials, but thinks that they have been unduly burdened by failed immigration and drug control policies.

After considering the role of border fences from a larger perspective, Commissioner Abeln drew one conclusion, saying: “The fact is, when you think about it, they’re a failure of public policy at some level. You don’t build fences because something is working. You build them because something is not working.”

O’Rourke: No border fence at historic site

El Paso Inc.
November 17, 2013
by David Crowder

Construction is set to start Wednesday to close the half-mile gap in the border fence at the historic site of Don Juan de Oñate’s Rio Grande crossing, Hart’s Mill and Old Fort Bliss.

The site is generally known as El Paso del Norte, the river crossing point from which El Paso takes its name.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said he just learned of the start date.

“Given that this is arguably the most historic part of the entire U.S.-Mexican border, I feel very strongly that we must do everything we can to ensure that we understand the consequences of any action we take here and explore alternatives to putting up a wall.”

O’Rourke said he thinks the chances of stopping a project that has been in the works for several years aren’t good.

But, he said, he will do what he can in the coming days.

“I’ve spoken to other members of Congress who represent border communities, and they’re with us in this,” he said. “I’m going to look at other options politically, legislatively and administratively to ensure that El Paso’s needs are included in whatever decisions that are made.”

O’Rourke spoke with Thomas Winkowski, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, on Thursday and said he sought to impress upon him the importance of the site and the urgency of the situation.

“To cut to the quick, he and I are at an impasse,” the freshman congressman told El Paso Inc. “He feels that this is going to be very hard to stop at this point.”

O’Rourke wrote Winkowski a forceful letter Oct. 22 asking for a historic and cultural survey of the site and for “alternative fencing options.”

“I feel like El Paso has a very strong case to make,” O’Rourke said Thursday. “We’re going to renew that case with his team and explore what our options are and what the alternatives are.”

Historic crossing

The Oñate crossing site just off West Paisano is owned by rancher and businessman Chip Johns. It is in the midst of multiple construction projects – demolishing the Yandell Street overpass, improving West Paisano Drive and preparing for an overhead toll road to complete Loop 375.

Johns says he has been fighting the border fence project for more than three years, looking for support from local governments and historical groups to no avail.

He’s also hired a lawyer to help him negotiate a higher sale price for the right of way taken by the project.
“The government ‘eminent domained’ me and took that property behind Fort Bliss and the Hacienda Café along the river and now they want 20 more feet,” he said.

“That will put the fence very, very close to the historic markers back there.”

The standard 17-foot-high border fence would dominate the site, Johns said, but it could be significantly preserved if just 100 yards were left open or if another type of fence were built.

O’Rourke said Winkowski did tell him that the project calls for erection of a “removable barrier” to close the gap that measures about six-tenths of a mile.

“But I think we all know that once a wall goes up, whether it’s removable or permanent, it’s very unlikely that it’s going to be removed,” O’Rourke said.

“It just sets the stage for a more permanent structure and conditions the community to never expect to see something better in that location.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Arizona border fence plan stalled after 3 years

Associated Press / USA Today
November 6, 2013

PHOENIX (AP) — A plan by Republican Arizona lawmakers to build a mile of fencing along the border with Mexico using private money has stalled nearly three years after it was sanctioned by the Legislature.
Private donations expected to fund the project dried up after only a fraction of the funding was in hand, leaving the project far short of its lofty goals.

Lawmakers on a border security committee that met Wednesday acknowledged the state has received just $264,000 for the project, well short of the $2.8 million needed to build the first mile of fencing.

The plan championed by Rep. Steve Smith originally called for collecting as much as $50 million to build a 15-foot fence at busy, yet-to-be-determined border-crossing points then erecting fences along miles of the state's 375-mile border that have no federal fences.

The effort began during the height of Arizona's battle against illegal immigration, before a backlash that left former state Senate President Russell Pearce out of a job after a recall and the GOP-led Legislature with no more appetite for measures targeting immigration.

The Arizona Legislature's border security advisory committee, which includes lawmakers, sheriff's and state department heads, took no action Wednesday on a new spending plan. It also put off until next month a discussion on how to allocate what money it has.

Donations dried up less than six months after the state launched a website in 2011 to collect money for the project. In December of that year, the state had more than $250,000, but the tally remained at just over $264,000 on Wednesday.

Smith, R-Maricopa, said he still hopes to use the cash as seed money for some type of enhanced border security — a fence or some other measure he declined to detail.

"I think all options are on the table," Smith said. "I think people would be really surprised what we can do with a little bit of funds."

The committee co-chair, Rep. David Stevens, said Smith is considering asking the committee to distribute money to sheriffs with jurisdictions along the border.

"He wants to put it to use on the border, because it's not enough to build a fence," Stevens said Tuesday evening. Smith would not confirm that on Wednesday.

The Legislature created the committee in 2011 and tasked it with making recommendations to the governor about how to handle the border. The fence project was one of its key goals

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sister of border agency leader pleads guilty to human smuggling charge

Center for Investigative Reporting
November 1, 2013
by Andrew Becker

The sister of the top-ranking U.S. Customs and Border Protection official in Arizona pleaded guilty Thursday to smuggling an immigrant through a Border Patrol checkpoint near Tucson in the car she was driving, her defense attorney said.

Tammy Leigh Stephens, 52, of Phoenix, admitted in U.S. District Court in Tucson to aiding and abetting an illegal entry. As part of a plea agreement, a second charge of transporting a migrant not authorized to be in the U.S. for financial gain was dropped, her attorney, Eric S.  Manch, said in a telephone interview.

Stephens is the sister of Jeffrey Self, the commander of the agency’s Arizona Joint Field Command, which, under his control, unifies three major border operations in the state and includes one of the busiest smuggling corridors along the Southwest U.S. border.

Agency officials said they have no information that suggests any employees were involved or aware of the alleged criminal activity, including Self.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection “is fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and will refer all questions to them,” Melanie Roe, the agency’s assistant commissioner for public affairs, said in a written statement.

Stephens and a co-defendant, Jason Miles English, who pleaded guilty to the same charge Wednesday, were sentenced to 30 days each, said Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona. He declined to answer other questions related to the prosecution.

A 25-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol, Self has stepped aside from any involvement with his sister’s case, officials said. In the interim, he will be reassigned to Washington, where he will serve as the acting deputy assistant commissioner for the Office of Training and Development. In that role, he will lead efforts to implement recently announced changes to the agency’s use-of-force policies and practices.

The union that represents Border Patrol agents took issue with Self's reassignment.

“A normal Border Patrol agent who had a close relative arrested for alien smuggling would themselves be investigated by internal affairs and the Border Patrol, not rewarded and reassigned to a high-profile position within the agency,” said Shawn Moran, a vice president of the National Border Patrol Council.

Alan Bersin, then commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, appointed Self as the first commander of the Joint Field Command when it was created in 2011. Martin Vaughan, an official with the agency’s Office of Air and Marine, will serve as the Joint Field Command’s acting commander.

The offices that fall under the Arizona Joint Field Command – the U.S. Border Patrol, Office of Field Operations, and the Office of Air and Marine – include operations at some of the agency’s biggest Border Patrol stations, various border crossings and other ports of entry, and unmanned aerial vehicles and other aircraft.

Arizona is a major transit area for human and drug smuggling and has been a major focus for the agency and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In fiscal year 2012, Customs and Border Protection apprehended 124,631 unauthorized border crossers in Arizona, the lowest number in 19 years, while capturing more than 1.1 million pounds of drugs between and at border crossings and other ports, according to the agency.

The family relation makes for an uncommon situation, but defense attorneys for Stephens and co-defendant English described the alleged smuggling attempt as nothing unusual for that area.

“There’s not really anything about the case that seems out of the ordinary,” said Manch.

Stephens was driving a white Mitsubishi Galant with two passengers Oct. 20 when she approached a Border Patrol checkpoint on State Route 85 near Why, Ariz, according to the criminal complaint signed by a Border Patrol agent.

When an agent asked the nationality of a passenger, Marlene Josefina Rodriguez-Fernandez, Stephens answered that the woman was a U.S. citizen, the complaint shows.

Rodriguez-Fernandez presented a U.S. passport that did not belong to her and eventually admitted that she was not a citizen or national of the United States and did not have documents that permitted her to be in the country.

She told the Border Patrol that she made arrangements to be smuggled into the United States and agreed to pay money for the use of a U.S. passport, the complaint shows. She was told to go to a gas station after crossing the border and board a car with a female driver, who turned out to be Stephens.

English later entered the car, asked for an identification document from Rodriguez-Fernandez and told her “to say that they were returning from partying in Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico,” the complaint shows.
English admitted to the Border Patrol that he agreed to accompany Stephens to the border to “pick up a friend,” according to the complaint.

There's no indication Stephens has been involved in smuggling before, Manch said. He said there were "a lot of reasons" for her decision to be involved in the smuggling attempt, but it was complicated and he declined to give more specifics. He said she was aware of her brother's involvement in border security but did not know his specific role.

"She's embarrassed enough about this incident” and just wants to get back to her life, he said.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Court rules feds aren't liable for problems caused by border fence

Arizona Daily Star
October 24, 2013
by Howard Fischer

PHOENIX — Federal officials are legally entitled to be negligent in fencing the border without worrying about getting sued over the damages their actions cause, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments by the owners of Gringo Pass in Lukeville that the Department of Homeland Security owes them $6 million in damages from flooding they say was caused by the new border fence.

In their unsigned ruling, the judges sidestepped the entire question of whether the fence was improperly designed or constructed. Instead, they concluded that federal law gives Homeland Security broad discretion in how it meets its primary goals of securing the border.

And that, they said, ultimately makes the federal government immune from suit.

Attorney Joel Herz, who represents the plaintiffs, would not comment about the ruling or whether further appeals are contemplated. But this is the second court to conclude that the owners are out of luck, at least as far as getting legal redress.

According to court records, Gringo Pass has operated a grocery store and gas station since 1966 on land adjacent to the international border, west of the port of entry and east of Headquarters Wash.

A 1996 federal law requires Homeland Security to take certain actions to secure the Southwest border, including building at least 700 miles of fence. That law also allows the agency chief to waive any legal requirements determined necessary to ensure the “expeditious construction of barriers and roads.’’

In seeking bids, the Army Corps of Engineers said it wanted to keep individuals from crossing the border. It also included provisions to permit water and debris to flow freely through the cross-border washes.

The 5.2-mile stretch of fence was completed in 2008.

After a storm that summer, the National Park Service, which operates the nearby Organ Pipe National Monument, found that the fence had interrupted the flow of the wash.

The owners of Gringo Pass also reported damage and filed suit, a claim that was later amended to include subsequent problems following a 2010 storm.

But the company did not get a chance to even present its case to the jury.

U.S. District Court Judge David Bury said lawsuits for negligence are allowed against the federal government. But the judge also noted there is something called a “discretionary function exception’’ to those laws.

“When the discretionary function exception is applicable, it must be applied, even if, through application, it becomes a shield for carelessness and poor judgment,’’ Bury wrote. And he said that protects federal employees from suit “even if, in hindsight, it appears that they should have exercised their discretion differently.’’

And Bury said that, in this case, Homeland Security was entitled to that protection. He said the agency was specifically required to exercise its judgment to design, implement and maintain the fence.

Attorneys for Gringo Pass argued that Homeland Security violated environmental standards by not removing debris from the fence. They also said the design was not in conformity with standards for flooding by the United States International Boundary Commission.

But Bury said those issues are irrelevant, as neither represents federal law or policy that mandated the design or construction of the fence.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ownership questions arise in 21 border fence cases

Brownsville Herald
September 30, 2013
by Mark Reagan

Five years after the U.S. government seized land along the U.S.-Mexico border between Los Indios and Brownsville for the border fence, it still isn’t sure who all the landowners were and who needs to be compensated.

Last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen had 21 border fence condemnation cases on his docket after the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas, requested a status conference hearing to try to sift through some confusion in the cases.
The land involved in the cases is within Section 0-14 of the border fence, immediately to the east of the Los Indios Port of Entry, court documents show.

“The United States requests this status conference with the Court for the purpose of presenting its proposal to 1) identify the actual owners of the condemned tracts and the yet to be filed tracts in 0-14; 2) consolidate the tracts so that the entirety of the condemned land in question is in one case; and 3) sever the tracts from the consolidated case based on ownership boundaries in order to resolve title issues, just compensation and close the 0-14 cases on the Court’s docket,” court documents indicate.
Hanen ordered the USAO to draft a proposed order and have landowners and attorneys review it before presenting it to the court, according to docket text.

An attorney for one of the parties named in three of the suits agreed to speak to The Brownsville Herald about the hearing.

Lance Alan Kirby, who represents Robert B. Duncan in three of the cases, said the USAO used the status conference to explain to Hanen why the cases, most of which originated in 2008, were taking so long to resolve.

“His (USAO attorney E. Paxton Warner) explanation was that originally they were going to put the fence in a different place, but the berm wouldn’t support concrete so instead they had to use irrigation district property, which they purchased from the district but it turns out they didn’t own the property,” Kirby said of the irrigation district. “It was owned by landowners adjacent to it.”

Kirby said the Cameron County Irrigation District only had an easement, which was recently discovered and resulted in a title mess that the USAO is trying to clear up so it can proceed with condemnation actions and just compensation.

A spokeswoman with the USAO confirmed what Kirby told The Brownsville Herald.

“The judge’s take is he is ready to see this move and the landowners need to be paid for the condemnation since it’s been five years since the government has taken the property,” Kirby said. “The fence is there.”

He said that basically the USAO has to figure out who owns what and how much to compensate the landowners.

“They filed all these condemnation cases in 2008 because Paxton said they had a mandate to complete the border wall by 2008, and so they used appraisal district records to file condemnation actions instead of having the actual title work,” Kirby said. “Now they are getting title work and some people alleged to be owners are not owners and some of them, you know, there are new people still being added to the suit that they didn’t know about. So really what they have is a title mess that they are trying to clear up.”

The docket text also indicates that the court “has given the parties in the land condemnation cases, where the City of Brownsville is named, two weeks to write a letter if they intend to seek his (Hanen) recusal.”

The Brownsville Herald reached out to the city attorney’s office to request comment and was directed to file a public information request via the city secretary, Estela Von Hatten.

In an email responding to The Herald’s request for comment, Von Hatten replied: “In response to your public information request received on Sept. 24, 2013, the City has filed no motions to recuse the Honorable United States District Court Judge. Consequently, there is no document that would be responsive to your request.”

The Herald did not request documents so it’s not clear whether the city will seek to recuse Hanen.
As for the USAO’s pending proposed order on the 21 cases, Kirby said he wasn’t sure when it will be filed.

“They didn’t state when they are expected to get it,” he said of the proposed order. “So that’s something we’re curious as to when they are going to get it.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Border Caucus members signal shift in immigration approach

Brownsville Herald
September 7, 2013
by Ty Johnson

There were nearly enough members of Congress in Port Isabel Saturday to start a new House subcommittee as five Border Caucus representatives met to discuss immigration reform with the public.

Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, organized the event, which attracted more than 50 members of the public to a forum where residents peppered the congressmen with questions about border walls, paths to citizenship and the political battles holding back the nation from comprehensive reform.
The five Democrats fielded questions that centered mostly on the language of the bill the U.S. Senate passed earlier this summer.

That bill was amended many times in a manner that some Democrats said put too much emphasis on border security while not providing enough options for undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

Many at the forum wore T-shirts or carried signs in opposition to the proposed border fence, which is being completed across South Texas’ border with Mexico.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents McAllen and Texas’ 28th District, called the wall “a 14th century solution to a 21st century problem,” likening it to the Great Wall of China and other failed attempts throughout history during which countries built physical barriers to keep intruders out.
Scott Nicol, a McAllen resident, made the case that the only thing the fence truly prevents from crossing is animals.

Nicol, the chairman of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, said he was concerned about language in the Senate bill that he said allowed the federal government to suspend laws within 100 miles of the border.

Without environmental legislation to hold things in check, he was worried animals and plant life along the border would suffer.

“Why waive the Clean Water Act or the Endangered Species Act if you’re not planning on violating them?” he pointed out following the meeting.

The fence also creates issues from a property rights standpoint, he said, referring to examples throughout Brownsville where the fence cut through property.

During the forum, Cuellar pointed out the disproportion between the fence’s cost and its effectiveness.

Cuellar said the price per mile to use technology – cameras, sensors and the like – to secure the border cost about one-eighth of that to build a fence per mile.

He also noted the testimony of an expert in Washington who admitted the fence, on average, deterred those attempting to cross by about 15 seconds.

The public’s questions about the border fence led into a discussion about the so-called “trigger” in the Senate legislation that calls for increased border security before the implementation of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Cuellar said that to the majority of Congress, border security means more boots on the ground and a fence, the construction of which began in 2006.

Vela, speaking after the meeting, said he felt that while border security and immigration reform were connected, they should be discussed and legislated separately.

“We of course need to be mindful of border security, but I don’t think those two need to be conditioned on each other,” he said.

What he does think should be factored into the immigration debate, however, is international commerce.

“(The debate) needs to include a discussion about the significant trade relationship we have with Mexico,” he said.

Vela has recently led a shift in strategy for House Republicans aiming to bring about immigration reform by moving away from discussions about divided families and deportations to talk about jobs and the impact the United States’ third-largest trading partner has on the economy.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who represents the El Paso area, said he felt those who would be swayed by moral arguments have already chosen their side, noting that Vela’s efforts to show how Mexico directly impacts states is the congressmen’s best bet to bring about immigration reform in the near future.

“It connects members of Congress with their interdependence on Mexico,” he said, noting that Democrats will try to sell immigration reform as the key to job growth for districts from Ohio and Tennessee to New York.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, who represents the Nogales, Ariz., area, said the dialogue concerning immigration needed to shift to jobs, noting that House Speaker John Boehner’s Ohio district alone depends on Mexico directly for about 125,000 jobs.

“It’s got to be about how it creates jobs,” he said, again referencing the need to change reformists’ approach to immigration.

The problem facing Congress now, though, is time, Rep. Gene Green of Houston said.

Noting that there are only 39 days left in this year’s session, Green suggested that budget talks, debt ceiling debates and a vote concerning military strikes against Syria have the potential to dominate discussions through December.

“We may end up spending two weeks on (Syria),” he said, pointing out how the debate on whether to intervene in the Middle East has taken congressional focus away from other matters. “It’s kind of sucked the wind out of other issues.”

Still, Vela and the Border Caucus have not given up on the push for reform this session, as the representatives and others will be in Grijalva’s district next weekend to again bring congressional representatives to the border.

Congress reconvenes Monday.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Complex Life of Border Towns

National Journal
September 5, 2013
by Elahe Izadi

EAGLE PASS, TEXAS—Sam Farhat grew up in this small south Texas town where he now owns Cowboy Corral, a clothing shop where customers peruse racks of jeans, belts, and shirts while Farhat—a big man of Palestinian heritage wearing a cowboy hat—answers their questions in Spanish.

Farhat's business depends upon the foot traffic that legally enters the United States from Mexico, just blocks from his downtown storefront. Outside, people leaving discount perfume, dress, and shoe stores carry shopping bags as they cross the bridge on foot, walking past cars lined up waiting to cross the border.

But talk in Washington of tightening border security in towns like Eagle Pass as part of broader immigration reforms has locals weary. "That's not going to help business, that's for sure," Farhat said. "It's already hard enough for people to come across the border."

For residents in Eagle Pass and other nearby towns, the border is not a political topic or an abstract concept—the Rio Grande River that separates Mexico from the United States is in their backyard. Many of the ideas under consideration, from border fencing to additional Border Patrol agents and even drones overhead, will have a direct impact here.

"Those of us who live along the border want to be just as safe and secure in our beds as anyone else does, but we want a solution that works," said Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego, whose district includes Eagle Pass. "We don't want a political solution, we want a practical solution."

That may not be easy. In many ways, Eagle Pass represents the complexity of living in small border towns, where life can be woven together tightly with those of neighboring communities in Mexico.
Residents here cross the border regularly into the town of Piedras Negras, Mexico, to visit families and friends. Lines can get long on both sides of the bridge around Christmas and Easter. Communities along the border often refer to their "sister cities" on the Mexican side, and mayors and local agencies have working relationships. What happens on one side often affects the other.

"Blood lines don't stop," said Laura Allen, the Republican county judge in nearby Val Verde County, which includes the town of Del Rio. "Relationships don't stop at the river."

Securing the Border

In terms of security, Border Patrol agents are a more common sight in town than local police, and they often help in responding to emergencies. And the town already has some border fencing; in 2008, Eagle Pass was the first town the federal government sued in its effort to increase border fencing, drawing fierce opposition from town officials and residents.

If Congress passes an immigration bill, many of the security elements could intensify. The immigration bill passed by the Senate essentially calls for instituting a military-like presence along the border, spending $46 billion to double the number of Border Patrol agents to 40,000, build 700 miles of border fencing, and bolster technology such as drones to increase surveillance.

Border-security legislation unanimously passed out of the House Homeland Security Committee, authored by Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, takes a different approach. Before a dollar amount is dictated, the bill calls on the Homeland Security Department to first develop a border-security plan—subject to congressional approval—that would eliminate 90 percent of illegal border crossings within five years. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee cosponsored the bill, and other Democrats have signaled they find the language easier to work with than the Senate border-security provision. It's expected to be one of the first pieces of immigration legislation that House takes up after recess.

The congressional district with the longest stretch of the Mexican-U.S. border includes Eagle Pass. It's a swing district that President Obama lost but Gallego won in 2012. Gallego says border security is not a partisan issue in his district.

"One of the frustrations that people along the border have is so many people who are trying to drive the debate on border policy and border security are people who don't live on the border, who've never been to the border, and yet they're trying to dictate the terms by which we do border security," he said.

Indeed, there is a widespread sentiment here that people making political calculations about the border don't have sense of what daily life is like in border communities.

"They use the border, they see the area as a sword and a shield in politics, but we're human beings, we live down here," said Democratic State Rep. Poncho Nevarez, whose home is on the banks of the Rio Grande, so close that he can point to Mexico from his porch. His wife is Mexican, and his children take classes across the border.

"We shouldn't be pawns in this game to see who can get themselves elected because they can beat their chest more about how they secured the border," he said.

Unlike other parts of the border where violence from Mexico makes headlines, officials here say problems are comparatively tame, partially due to the presence of Border Patrol and state of affairs in neighboring Mexican cities.

"We're kind of the unseen area of the border here. You can go to El Paso, you can go to Loredo, but they don't have the same issues we have," Allen said. "Ask me when was the last time we had to shut down our bridge because violence spilled over from Mexico. It's not happening."

Border Patrol officials say they do apprehend people who commit serious crimes in the U.S. and cross back illegally. In the Del Rio border sector, 50 pounds of cocaine and 63,485 pounds of marijuana were seized by Border Patrol in fiscal 2012.

One major public-safety scare took place here last year, when more than 130 inmates broke out of a prison just over the border in Piedras Negras. Authorities at the time were concerned that prisoners could cross over to Eagle Pass, but it turns out that a Mexican drug cartel was likely behind the prison break, a tactic cartels use to replenish their ranks. Authorities found one suspected escapee this summer hiding in a home in Eagle Pass, but there was no other fallout.

Nevarez, who can point to the prison area from his yard, recalled rushing home after hearing of the break. But his fears were quickly allayed as he reasoned that many of those prisoners weren't going to cross into American soil, but rather stay in Mexico to work for the cartels.

Gallego says that people in border communities are united behind wanting to do something about the cartels and drug trade.

"The people coming here, even if they're coming here illegally, they're coming here to work in agriculture or construction," said Shawn Moran, vice president of National Border Patrol Council, a union representing Border Patrol agents. "But there is a large group that is coming here to sell drugs or be part of criminal gangs and commit crimes. We shouldn't overlook that in any sort of immigration reform."

The Border Patrol

Border Patrol and other federal agencies often constitute the most visible law enforcement in border communities. About 55,000 people live in the town and its outlying areas in Maverick County; Eagle Pass's police department numbered 76 in 2012.

Authorities won't release figures on the numbers of border agents designated for particular towns, but Eagle Pass and Del Rio are the two major towns in the Del Rio Border Patrol sector, which includes 210 miles of border and nearly 60,000 square miles of territory.There were 1,665 Border Patrol agents designated for this area in 2012, a figure that doesn't include Customs and Border Protection and other federal agents.

Nearly 87 percent of the nation's 21,394 Border Patrol agents come from the nine southwest border sectors. The Del Rio sector ranks in the middle in terms of the number of agents.

While Border Patrol agents are accepted as members of the community and regarded with respect, Gallego said some locals get frustrated with the checkpoints. Border Patrol checkpoints on roads extend far beyond the border; all motorists have to stop and answer questions related to their citizenship. A dog trained to detect drugs sniffs cars, and checkpoint stations are equipped with cameras, equipment to detect radioactive elements, and temporary holding cells for suspected illegal immigrants.

In 2012, the Border Patrol apprehended 21,720 illegal immigrants in the Del Rio sector, the highest number in the sector since 2007 and much higher than the El Paso sector's 9,678 apprehensions.

Moran says the border can be secured with fewer than the additional 20,000 agents called for in the Senate bill. His group pushed for an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would have revamped the pay system to allow flexibility for agents working overtime and covering shifts.

"It's usually during the busiest times, and when the smugglers know when we're in between shifts, and that's when they try to make their moves," Moran said.

The addition of more Border Patrol agents could have an economic impact in these communities, with an influx of jobs and dollars spent locally. Some ranchers and others living further from the border also want more agents to monitor those traversing their properties as they make their way inland. But many officials close to the border are skeptical that the federal government will be able to fully fund and sustain a doubling of Border Patrol agents.

"If you're telling me you're going to double the number of government jobs in my community and if you're going to allow these people to contribute to the economy, they're going to eat out at restaurants and shop at stores and buy homes—from an economic development perspective, I'm for that," Gallego said. "But that's not a border-security perspective. We haven't done anything for border security when we've done that."

Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey English Cantu said that while there is a need to "have a great presence," he would like to see resources poured into Customs and Border Protection, which operate the official entry points into the United States and where lines can back up. "We continue to see ports of entries where people are smuggling drugs across because there isn't the necessary infrastructure," he said. "These are the things that need to be ultimately addressed."

Farhat and others in Eagle Pass would like to see more resources poured into shortening the lines at the official ports of entry, which are operated by Customs and Border Protection, not Border Patrol. Tolls collected at the town's two points of entry make up more than a quarter of Eagle Pass's budget revenues.

The Fence

The fence, which once drew outrage in these communities, now attracts a level of amusement.
In Eagle Pass, it's more than 10 feet high, cuts through a city golf course, and includes openings throughout. "If those folks in Ohio were to see this, they'd say, 'Is this what you're wasting my tax dollars on?' " Nevarez said.

In Del Rio, American land sits on the other side of an approximately 2-mile portion of the fence, and Allen asks whether the American government has created a Demilitarized Zone. It stops at a low, barbed-wire fence on private property. Locals point to the fence gates, with extra horizontal bars, as places people climb over.

"The fence was not a good thing," Allen said. "We would have liked to see that money put to use for other things because, like I said, I can very easily show you where people walk around it, so why did we spend all that money?"

Between 2006 and 2009, the federal government allocated $2.4 billion for construction of 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicular fences, with costs ranging between $400,000 and $15.1 million per mile, depending on the location, fence material, topography and kind of fence, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.

But Border Patrol officials point to the fence as a useful tool in helping to manage crossings; agents can target their patrols better since they know where the entry points are. Moran says the fence has been very useful in slowing down the traffic across the border, particularly vehicular crossings.

"But no fence is going to stop people who are determined to get into this country. You can't have a fence with gaps if you want it to be effective," Moran said. "The technology is great and it's an asset, but no drone and no fence or whatever made an arrest. Those help us do our jobs."

There's also a sense in border communities that the fence makes them appear to be bad neighbors.

"If we take this militia approach to our border, what kind of message are we sending to our sister country? I don't like that message," Allen said. "Would we do that on the border with Canada? I really don't feel like we would."