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Backstory: Inside 'Border Patrol, Inc.'

With ATVs, sensors, and drones, US agents fight illegal crossings, often in vain.

By Faye BowersCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2006



NOGALES, ARIZ.

Inside the border patrol, they're called the "rock group" - agents, trained as welders, who spend days repairing holes in a 15-foot-high steel wall here along the border to keep out illegal immigrants. Both human traffickers and drug smugglers pay Mexican boys to use hacksaws - sometimes working all day - to cut holes in the wall, an "iron curtain" made out of salvaged aircraft-carrier landing mats. The welders respond with molten metal.

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But while they're working, the agents are frequently pelted with rocks by youths on the Mexican side of the controversial wall. Hence the rock group moniker - a reference to the mini-intafada here rather than any parallel with Mick Jagger. The "boys are hurling stones today, so be careful," one agent warns us as we tour the area.

The tale of the hacksaws and the welders is a metaphor for life along the dusty US-Mexico border in an era of heightened security and expanding illegal immigration.

Up and down the 2,000-mile border, the US government is throwing more manpower and sophisticated technology into slowing illegal entries into the US. But as it does, immigrants are showing greater ingenuity in circumventing the barriers and patrols.

Now, as Congress considers another overhaul of immigration laws, the encounters and clashes along the border are likely to intensify. Most of the bills in Congress include provisions to expand the border patrol (now part of US Customs and Border Protection), which has already seen agent strength along the nation's southern flank more than double since 9/11, to 11,000.

The result is an agency that is becoming increasingly complex and unwieldy. Agents already use everything from horses to mountain bikes to all-terrain vehicles to track drug smugglers and human traffickers. They also use aerial surveillance, periscope trucks, and underground sensors. Yet, through it all, the task of stopping illegal immigration can still seem daunting, if not futile, as a day in the life of the border patrol here recently showed.

***

The nerve center of operations in the Tucson sector, a 261-mile stretch of border, is an expansive new brick-and-glass headquarters in Nogales. In one room - the intelligence hub - sits a U-shaped set of desks with 25 television monitors that show various grids of the desolate desert area. The new technology employed along the border - movement sensors buried amid the mesquite, cameras, and two unmanned aircraft - transmit information instantly to the monitors.

Camera 17 is trained on someone walking along the border fence. He suddenly spots the roving eye and ducks behind a tree. Camera 35 shows where an underground sensor has gone off, so the agent dispatches a crew to "lie in wait" for the crossers. They will pack in on horseback or on four-wheelers. Sometimes it takes two to three days to reach the spots - and the waiting can be inhospitable. One agent, Shannon Stevens, recalls her first ambush duty: She was stalked by a tarantula.

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