By Hillel Aron
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When pressed again, she answers, “If I had to do it over again — yeah. I hate this border-death thing — a terrible, terrible injustice.”
The U.S. Border Patrol maintains the mother of all its outposts on the dusty outskirts of Douglas, Arizona. Sitting smack in the middle of one of the strategic clampdown pressure points on the border, the 53,000-square-foot Douglas station is the largest Border Patrol fort in the U.S. Completed two years ago on land seized from narcotics smugglers, it serves as headquarters for a greatly swollen contingent of more than 500 agents.
Just as the San Diego area was fortified as a result of Operation Gatekeeper, Douglas has benefited from 1998’s Operation Safeguard. As the California border was tightened down, immigrant traffic began to rip through Douglas, a sleepy little hamlet whose claim to fame is that Pancho Villa was said to have once ridden his horse up the staircase at the still-grand Hotel Gadsden.
For the last three years, Douglas has also been effectively blockaded. Three miles’ worth of stadium lights have been installed. Vehicle barriers have been erected. A 12-foot fence has been extended. As around San Diego, batteries of sensors have been laid down. Night-vision sky towers and remote video-surveillance cameras scan and scrub the bush-covered desert. A detachment of 20 horses and 16 Border Patrol agents conduct extended 30-day “camp details,” scouring the town’s outskirts for crossers.
And, as in San Diego, the walls, the scopes and the sensors stretch only so far. In the case of Douglas, the fence runs for a total of six miles and then abruptly ends. The once nonstop tramping of immigrants through Douglas has been stanched. Now the same migrants cross through the searing deserts to the west and the freezing and forbidding mountains to the east.
On a recent Friday morning, you could see some of them in the state-of-the-art high-tech “dispatch room” inside the Border Patrol’s Douglas station. A handful of experts sat in front of two banks of 40 TV monitors and computer video screens. By manipulating their consoles of buttons and joysticks, the Border Patrol dispatchers control and move 26 remote video cameras. Everything in their sweep is recorded and kept for 30 days in case there’s any need for cross-referencing.
With little fanfare, the civilian dispatcher sitting in front of me has caught the image of a crosser carefully threading his way through the rocks while talking on a cell phone. A button is pushed, and the remote camera zooms in closely enough to make out his facial features. He looks to be a thin, light-complexioned man with dark hair; he wears blue jeans and a rust-colored jacket.
The man is still on the “south side,” the Mexican side of the border, but he’s headed straight for U.S. territory in the open desert before him. The dispatcher makes a radio call to one of the Border Patrol units that — if not tied down with more pressing business — will swoop in and await the man’s eventual crossing of the line.
It’s one more unremarkable moment, like hundreds of thousands of others, in what the frustrated and disgusted mayor of Douglas calls “our little charade on the border.”