Illegal Immigrants Gravitate Toward Arizona Border

Peter Slevin, Washington Post, May 30, 2010

Along a rugged stretch of the Mexican border here in southern Arizona, U.S. authorities captured 687 illegal immigrants in a 24-hour period last week, three times the number captured near San Diego. During the past eight months, agents have apprehended 168,000 migrants along this sector of the border.

The border crossers are so determined, and so impervious to a long-running buildup of federal agents and technology, that few here think President Obama’s recent decision to dispatch 1,200 National Guard soldiers and $500 million will make much difference.

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Nogales is the heart of a 262-mile stretch of border defined by sharp rises, steep ravines and brutal desert heat. As border controls are tightened elsewhere, including through the construction of a border fence in parts of Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico, Mexican migrants and smugglers have gravitated to the 90,000-square-mile area known by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as the Tucson Sector.

“When you plug a hole in the wall, the water looks for another spot to flow through. Arizona is that spot,” said Nogales police chief Jeff Kirkham, who reported that immigrants are “going over the wall, going through the wall or through tunnels.”

Others try to make their way though the remote desert where the high fence stops. Once across the border, they face a daunting trek that can stretch 30 miles or more in heat approaching 100 degrees. Agents staff checkpoints and crisscross the area, supported by millions of dollars worth of sensors, cameras, surveillance aircraft and computer technology.

Since 2006, staffing of the Tucson Sector has increased 30 percent, to about 3,200 officers. But immigrants from across the globe keep coming over the border–alone or in groups, sometimes guided by smugglers, sometimes arriving at official crossings neatly dressed and with fake papers.

On a typical day, nearly 1 million people cross from Mexico into the United States, according to U.S. government figures. About 270,000 vehicles cross the Southwest border every 24 hours, along with about 57,000 truck, rail and sea containers. Sixty percent of the Mexican fruit and vegetables entering the United States comes through Nogales.

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So far, 210 miles of the 262-mile Tucson Sector border is fenced. McCain, facing GOP primary challenger J.D. Hayworth, a border hawk, made waves by declaring in a campaign advertisement filmed in Nogales: “Complete the danged fence.”

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