Perhaps nowhere else on the border is the increase in the number of agents so striking as in Ft. Hancock. Border patrol vehicles overflow into the street at the district station along the main street – of the few that are paved – in this dilapidated West Texas town of 1800 mostly Mexican-American inhabitants about sixty miles from El Paso. According to BP public information officer Ramiro Cordero, eight years ago there were only a “handful of agents, maybe twenty or thirty.” Today, there the Ft. Hancock station has “more than two hundred agents.” At a cost of $19 million, the Department of Homeland Security is building a new district station adjoining the recently constructed Ft. Hancock Port-of-Entry. A narrow bridge, constructed in 1936, connects Ft. Hancock to its Mexican border twin, El Porvenir. On either side of the border are vast reaches of virtually uninhabited and uninhabitable deserts and rugged mountains. The new Border Patrol station will stand out as the largest building along the border for at least fifty miles in either direction. The newly fortified Ft. Hancock contrasts markedly with the past federal presence in the area. The original Ft. Hancock was an army outpost in territorial Texas, which like other “forts” in the Texas borderlands was little more than rustic housing for a band of soldiers charged with hunting down insurgent Indians and with protecting the railroad and border line. Abandoned in 1895, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that settlement that had grown up around the fort became host to another armed federal presence. The Border Patrol, founded in 1924, was an outgrowth of an informal border patrol established by the Texas Rangers shortly after the turn of the century. Border Patrol headquarters were established in El Paso with small outposts along the border. For the first several decades, there was no training and little infrastructure to support the agents who were then known as inspectors. According to one history of the Border Patrol in the El Paso sector: “When they joined the service, they received a badge, a pistol, and oats and hay for their horses, which they had to provide themselves. By the 1950s and 1960s, the Border Patrol had established strict requirements for agents and had embarked on a rigid training program.”
Four decades later the Border Patrol station at Ft. Hancock remained a small post with only four agents in the 1960s. James Shelby, a retired Immigration Patrol inspector who was stationed at Fort Hancock in the early 1960s, recalled that the first thing he did after his arrival there was to learn every inch of the country.
When tracking illegal border crossers, he could jump ahead because he would already know where the water holes were, the location of ranch houses that would hire the immigrants or feed them. Recounting a typical day as an inspector in the Ft. Hancock area, Shelby said that a major part of the work was “sign cutting” or finding, understanding and following the footprints, signs or tracks of those who had crossed illegally.
"We had a four-man station and had to cover 58 miles of river and about 106 miles of 'drag' roads,” said Shelby, “We cut every inch of them everyday. It was 12 to 16 hour days and it was good work."
Sign cutting remains a skill Border Patrol agents must learn as part of their “line watch” operations. But agents today are less frontiersmen than cops in cars.
It’s at shift change when the Border Patrol stations hum with activity, as one contingent of agents head out to the field and others return in their green-and-white trucks, jeeps, and vans. Before the border security buildup, it was not uncommon that agents had to wait to go out on patrol until the previous shift returned their vehicles.
With the ever-increasing budget for immigration enforcement and border patrol, border patrol vehicles are abundant. As a guideline, there are currently three vehicles for every two agents, and one vehicle for each supervisor. One of the reasons that the Border Patrol needs so many vehicles, explained Officer Cordero, is that even if agents aren’t driving they have the engines idling while they are on watch, which, he noted, is really hard on the Border Patrol’s vehicle fleet.
As the number of Border Patrol agents has increased, doubling since 2000, the number of Border Patrol arrests has declined. In 2000, the Border Patrol arrested 1.6 million illegal immigrants, while the number arrested last year was 766,000 – less than half those arrested eight years previously and the lowest since 1975.
The declining number of immigrants arrested by the Border Patrol reflects a decreasing northbound flow of immigrants. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that 800,000 undocumented immigrants successfully crossed every year into the United States between 2000 and 2005, while that flow declined to 500,000 in the past few years, with year-to-year drops.
As part of a new effort to justify its seemingly ubiquitous presence in remote areas like Ft. Hancock, the Border Patrol is increasingly asserting that it is protecting border communities against criminal aliens. In its 2008 yearend report on accomplishments, the Border Patrol said that the El Paso Sector “prosecuted a total of 8,144 individuals, which includes 3,120 felony and 5,024 misdemeanor cases.”
In its news release, the El Paso Border Patrol said that it “has made significant improvements but the work is not done.” El Paso Sector’s Chief Patrol Agent Victor M. Manjarrez Jr. said, “We live in an age that is dangerous and uncertain, but the United States Border Patrol remains committed to the security of the border, we will continue to support the communities we serve.”
But throughout the borderlands, there is increasing community resentment of the Border Patrol. With fewer illegal immigrants crossing, agents are increasingly stopping local residents, both randomly and at highway checkpoints. And as the number of border crossers drop, the Border Patrol is increasingly patrolling areas far from the border but still within the 100-mile band north and south of the Mexican and Canadian borders.
Photo: Loading immigrants in front of Ft. Hancock Merchandise, circa 1960