|Arizona Sheriffs Dever and Babeu/AP|
Pity the poor Border Patrol.
Whether apprehensions and seizures are up or down, the Border Patrol has under fire from border security hawks for not doing enough.
That’s long been the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Border Patrol came under frequent attack for not doing enough to stop what immigration restrictionists and many conservatives routinely called the “illegal invasion.”
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks set off a steady buildup in personnel and infrastructure along the border. Yet the complaints that federal government isn’t doing enough to control the border have not diminished. Instead, the criticism that the Border Patrol isn’t holding the line has escalated.
Last week Ron Vitiello, deputy chief of the Border Patrol, got a taste of that criticism on live TV when the hosts of Fox & Friends grilled him about the charges of two Arizona sheriffs that the Border Patrol was keeping apprehension statistics down to bolster claims that the Arizona border is more secure.
Immediately following the hostile interview was a fawning interview with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who along with Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever are charging that the Border Patrol in Arizona is under orders to keep arrest numbers down.
The sheriffs contend that instead of arresting illegal border crossers, the Border Patrol is chasing them back into Mexico through an official operation called “Turn Back South” or “TBS.” Dever and Babeu have become media celebrities – particularly with right-wing media outlets like Fox News – because of their hard-line positions on border security and their associated criticism of the Obama administration. They are the founders of BorderSheriffs.com, an organization that strongly supports Arizona’s immigration enforcement law SB 1070.
The Fox hosts regarded -- with open skepticism -- statements by Deputy Chief Vitiello (who skirted the TBS issue) that the Border Patrol sought to “to catch all who come across.” But what about the declining arrest numbers, they asked, directly challenging his integrity.
Fox News commonly features Dever and Babeu, both Republicans, in their segments on the border and immigration, uncritically reporting their views.
Two days before the Vitiello and Babeu interviews about the TBS charges, Fox News reporter Jana Winter followed up an April 1 interview of Dever with another story on the statistics manipulation charge in which his assertions were backed up by the National Border Patrol Council and by other current and retired agents.
Resurrecting An Old Canard
This isn’t the first time that the Border Patrol has been charged with fixing its numbers.
In the mid-1990s, when the epicenter of right-wing border activism was in southern California not in southern Arizona as it is today, the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector came under criticism for falsifying its stats.
Today, the purported conspiracy involves lowering apprehension numbers to bolster DHS claims that the border is more secure than ever before. In 1994 the Border Patrol was charged with put the fix in so as to exaggerate the success of Operation Gatekeeper. Along with Operation Hold the Line, which was launched in 1994 by El Paso Sector Chief Silvestre Reyes, Operation Gatekeeper was a type of pilot project for the agency’s new “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategy.
Rather than simply waiting for illegal border crossers, the strategy put new emphasis on deterring immigrants at the border through new infrastructure (such as fencing and stadium lighting) and increased Border Patrol presence on the immediate border. “Turn Back South” patrolling was part of this new deterrence strategy.
Investigating the charges that TBS patrolling served as a cover for underreporting of arrests by the Border Patrol, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General “found no evidence of any conspiracy by the Border Patrol to fraudulently reduce apprehension statistics.”
The charges of fraudulent numbers came initially from the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, and were loudly echoed by California’s border hawks and anti-immigration activists.
In statements to the media in 1996, two union officials charged that Border Patrol supervisors falsified records, altered intelligence reports, and conducted operations so as to mislead the public about the program's effectiveness.
The previous year Operation Hold the Line had great success in obstructing illegal crossings through El Paso. As the OIG noted:
[The] deterrence-based border control strategy in Texas, increased pressure on Operation Gatekeeper to show similar results. Indeed, during Congressional hearings on Operation Gatekeeper in March 1995, the panel extracted a promise from Commissioner Meissner that apprehensions in San Diego would fall 70 percent in the next year.
Union officials alleged that Border Patrol management was hard put to fulfill that promise and instead chose to falsify apprehension figures to make them substantially lower. Besides fraudulently altering the apprehension statistics to show fewer arrests, the union officials contended that agents were instructed to chase illegal border crossers back across the border rather than arrest them.
The OIG interviewed 307 persons regarding apprehension statistics and the possibility that they were falsified, 78 of whom actually prepared reports containing apprehension statistics. In addition, the OIG said that it also reviewed thousands of Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and DOJ reports containing apprehension statistics. It concluded:
Significantly, no witness interviewed by the OIG claimed to have first-hand knowledge that any apprehension statistic during Gatekeeper had been fabricated or claimed to have seen a document containing an altered apprehension statistic. Extensive reviews of intelligence reports at all levels of the Border Patrol and INS, likewise, uncovered no supporting evidence.
In its report, the OIG also addressed Turn Back South” or “TBS.”
This practice was sometimes employed by agents, the OIG reported, was made by individual agents – rather than being a standard agency operating strategy -- and was based on the agent's judgment as to whether apprehension was a reasonable and safe alternative.
Border Patrol agents told the OIG that they did not physically force illegal border crossers back over the new border fence. Rather they were sometimes maneuvered into a position where they had to choose between apprehension and retreat. According to the OIG report, “The evidence showed that turning aliens back south is a legitimate tactic that was in use long before Gatekeeper as a means to contain large groups of aliens and to protect agents from injury.”
But why would officials of the National Border Patrol Council attempt to impugn Border Patrol officials?
The OIG offered a credible explanation, pointing to the increasing tension between many of the agents and the agency leadership as it began to implement new deterrence strategy. Instead of trying to catch and then remove as many illegal immigrants as it could, as had been the traditional agency practice in the immediate border region, the Border Patrol sought to deter them crossing in the first place though increased on-the-line presence and infrastructure.
According to OIG, the field agents balked at implementing the new deterrence strategy because it Operation Gatekeeper represented a “sea change” in their job assignments:
Rather than being free to patrol the station's entire area of responsibility searching for illegal aliens to apprehend, agents were instructed to remain in fixed positions to deter entry. Instead of being praised for apprehending numerous aliens, agents were told that deterrence and lower apprehension numbers were Gatekeeper's objectives.
Under the old system apprehension figures provided a ready measure of an agent's skill and work ethic; under Gatekeeper, the abstract concept of deterrence governed.
Many agents disliked these new methods and believed Gatekeeper was merely a political ploy rather than a legitimate strategy. Some agents believed that political pressure from Washington, D.C. (variously defined as the President, the Attorney General, the INS Commissioner, or Congress) forced supervisors to reduce the number of apprehensions, even if to do so required fraud. Some agents became suspicious of their supervisors' motives and began talking about their suspicions; rumors of alleged falsifications began to spread.
Poor Deputy Chief Vitiello. He can boast that apprehensions are down 44% over last year in the Tucson sector, but border hawks see this as evidence of fraud not that the border is more secure than ever, as DHS insists.
He sticks to DHS talking points about border security, while not daring to mentions that agents are indeed authorized to force illegal immigrants back across the border for fear of adding fuel to the firestorm ignited by Dever and Babeu.
Unable to acknowledge that TBS tactics are employed as part of the Border Patrol’s deterrence strategy, the Border Patrol chief comes across as dissembling, while Dever and Babeu are the straight-shooters.
It is another illustration of how the Border Patrol is caught short by its own numbers game.
The Border Patrol has long played a numbers game, regularly trotting out arrest and seizures numbers to show it is doing its job – and to justify rising budgets. The numbers are impressive: hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrested, even a million plus in some years, and seized marijuana measured in tons.
Yet the Border Patrol often finds it losing a game for which it has set the rules and tallies the score.