(Part of a Border Lines series on Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora.)
The border security imperative has deeply scarred the borderlands, putting its very identity at risk. But fear, ideology, and walls have not yet trumped the seemingly irrepressible drive to integrate socially and economically.
|Welcoming immigrants at Centro de Migrantes in Agua Prieta|
Horrific drug-related violence across the Mexican borderlands, northbound flows of narcotics, and millions of desperate Mexicans and Central Americans eager to immigrate to the United States.
Clearly, we can’t stand idly by. Something must be done to ensure that this violence doesn’t spill over the border and to ensure control over what and who enters our nation.
The politics of border security have rushed to the rescue. Yet it remains unclear what is really being accomplished by the tens of billions of dollars spent each year to “secure the border.”
Splitting the Twins in Cochise County, Arizona
In Cochise County, the immense expanse of desert, mountains, and farmland that spans the border in southeastern Arizona, something is being done. Over the past five years, the difference has been dramatic. Perhaps no other part of the border so well reflects the new combined federal, state, local, and citizen commitment to what is now commonly called border security.
Driving south from Interstate #10 toward the border, you can travel an hour and encounter only green-and-white Border Patrol vehicles. Residents and city officials in the border town of Douglas describe a dramatic buildup in agents stationed on this stretch of the border.
“Overwhelming,” “Border Patrol agents are now living on every block in our city,” “an occupation,” and “omnipresent” are among the common observations. The number of Border Patrol agents deployed in the Tucson sector (which includes Douglas) has more than doubled since 2000 – up to 3300.
It used to be that Douglas and Aqua Prieta, the Sonoran city that sprawls along the border, were commonly called twin or sister cities. In effect, for many residents, the U.S. and Mexican cities comprised one metropolitan area.
But the image of a binational community began to erode in the 1990s, as the Border Patrol launched operations to shut down illegal border crossings through urban areas.
The launching in the Douglas area of Operation Safeguard in 1999 marked the kick-off of the ongoing Border Patrol campaign to gain “operational control” over the Douglas crossing corridor. By 2000 about 350 Border Patrol agents were assigned to the Douglas station for Safeguard operations, and by 2005 there were more than 1,0000 employees, including BP, CBP, and ICE agents, of the Department of Homeland Security working in the Douglas district.
The walling and fortification of the border, however, constitutes the most dramatic change in border control operations around Douglas. The 12-ft wire mesh fence erected in the late 1990s to divide the downtowns of Agua Prieta and Douglas has since been supplemented by double and triple fencing that is both higher and more heavily reinforced.
Accompanying this array of walls and fencing is a phalanx of other fortifications, including remote-motion sensors, video and infrared cameras, sky towers, and high-intensity stadium lights.
Looking toward the border twin of Agua Prieta, the border that skirts Douglas and its 18,000 residents is now less a line than a forbidding security zone – offering assurance to who regard Mexico (and Mexicans) as a threat but badly undermining the city’s tradition of integration.
In 2008 Douglas Mayor Ray Borane, speaking with NPR about the new border fortifications resulting from the Secure Fence Act of 2006, reflected on the measure’s likely negative impact on crossborder relations:
“We depend almost 100 percent on the economy from - not only from that sister city, but from other cities near the border. On any given day, you know, one-third of their population will be over here and one-third of our population will be over there. So we have a completely different perspective because we consider ourselves one bilingual, bicultural community.”
Over the past decade, border security policies have severely damaged the commerce and social integration of the two cities. Downtown stores in Douglas have taken a severe hit from the decrease in pedestrian traffic from Agua Prieta.
Suffering in Agua Prieta
But it’s been Agua Prieta that has suffered most.
While the era of border security has greatly bolstered Douglas with the infusion of Homeland Security and Justice Department jobs, construction work, and related services employment, Agua Prieta has little to counterbalance the dramatic severe downturn in the number U.S. shoppers, dental patients, and tourists.
Compounding the economic suffering, the downtown hotels, shops, and restaurants that were once filled with prospective immigrants have emptied and are now mostly shuttered.
Yet, for all that the border security build-up has done to divide the two cities, Douglas and Agua Prieta remain largely bilingual, bicultural, and, most remarkably, binational communities.
Fear, long delays at the port-of-entry on the Pan American Highway, and the increased documentation needed to travel have all decreased northbound crossings at the Douglas POE. From 2003 to 2008, the number of people crossing into Douglas dropped by 16%.
Yet the number of legal crossings remains remarkably high: 4.7 million people crossed from Agua Prieta to the small and very remote city of Douglas during that six-year period.
Truck traffic from Mexico to Douglas – largely copper, cattle, and assembled manufactured maquila products -- actually increased 20% during this period, while car traffic dropped by 22%.
|Border fence/Tom Barry|
While there are no reliable statistics on southbound crossings, the two communities remain inextricably linked, as witnessed each day by the long and bending queue of cars, most with Sonora plates, lining up along the Pan American Highway to cross back into Agua Prieta.