By Vianney Cardenas

Despite the ups, downs and sharp turns, Arizona 83 between Interstate-10 and Sonoita is a unique and enjoyable ride. Flat desert terrain gives way to rolling hills studded with trees, brush and grasses along the scenic highway.

Also present are the Border Patrol vehicles that begin to appear where a tent and bright orange traffic cones mark the Sonoita U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint. 

There are approximately 11 border checkpoints in the Tucson sector, which covers 262 miles of the southwest border and remains one of the busiest in the region. They are used by Border Patrol to deter migrants and smuggling activities that have made it to the United States.

Additionally, there are nine Border Patrol stations located in Casa Grande, Tucson, Nogales, Why, Willcox, Sonoita, Bisbee, Douglas, and Three Points, where agents monitor the activity occurring in the field, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The small Sonoita checkpoint is approximately 25 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales. Many Border Patrol agents don’t see the fence as the most important asset for detecting and apprehending migrants. “We utilize the fence as a tool, we know people can jump over it, we know people can dig underneath it,” said Border Patrol agent Daniel Hernandez. “A lot of people think Border Patrol relies on the fence to keep somebody in or out. We don’t. We utilize it to buy us time.”

To Border Patrol agents, border enforcement technology is a main factor in making apprehensions. Camera towers, scanners, ground sensors and radar systems, first implemented in the 1980s and 1980s, might be the biggest and most successful tools ever used by the Border Patrol, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In the past, Border Patrol agents were sent out to hilltops with a set of binoculars to look for migrant activity. Now, the technology being used can do the same work as an agent, if not more, according to Hernandez. With just the camera towers alone, there are around 20 different angles that can pick up movement within a six mile radius.

Ground sensors have been used for many years, but Border Patrol is currently phasing them out and integrating more camera-based technology, said Joseph Curran, a Border Patrol agent of the Tucson Sector Strategic Communication Branch.

There are several different types of camera towers, some of which are used in urban areas and some in rural, rugged, isolated areas. Some of the camera towers carry high definition cameras that can pick up clear features in order to identify a subject; others are used for radar surveillance, and others are mobile camera towers that can be placed in the back of a Border Patrol truck and stationed in areas where there is an influx of traffic or activity. 

When the sensors detect any movement from something or someone nearby, they immediately alert Border Patrol dispatch agents.“Dispatch analyzes what caused the camera to go off and if appropriate, sends an agent to investigate,” Curran said. “The Border Patrol wants the right response to the right incursion. The ability to see what is on camera in real time can best help us do that.”

This technology has also helped alert agents to assist migrants in distress, according to Curran. Migrants traveling north come from many countries around the world: El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, and Russia, to name a few. Sometimes, they run into trouble on the way. “I have also seen many occasions in which migrants who are lost, start small fires which are detected by Border Patrol technology,” Curran said. Migrants may start small fires in the desert to alert anyone nearby that they are present and in need of help. 

Border Patrol also leaves rescue beacons out on the ground which migrants can activate when they are in distress. “When activated, Border Patrol agents provide a swift and definitive response to the migrants in need of help,” Curran added.

There is always a small chance that the enforcement technology can fail or make false detections, according to Curran. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in March 2018 shows that Border Patrol “has not yet used available data to determine the contribution of surveillance technologies to border security efforts.” 

The Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), a 2006 program to install cameras, scanners and towers along the border, failed after the GAO reported several technical problems  Cameras weren’t picking up clear images, sensors and radars were making false detections and the environment didn’t allow for the products to work successfully. Approximately $1 billion went into this program, according to a May 2011 report. Border enforcement technology has improved over the years, with better quality hardware and  software, and the agency has hired agents who are experienced with the technology being used. “The only negative I would consider is the possibility that technology can fail,” Curran said. “Although unlikely, there is always the possibility.”