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Border Insecurity: Why big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer. by Sylvia Longmire. Palgrave/MacMillan. 2014. 250 pp.

Since traveling and living in the deep Southwest, I’ve often been stunned by the front and center role border issues occupy here. No mere distant possibility, close encounters of the border kind happen here with startling regularity. Our first sighting was in Imperial County where Interstate 8 dips almost to touch the border. There, in the late 90s, we watched as a old white beater Yugo pulled into the break down lane where someone scrambled from the drainage ditch into the back seat and off they went. Another time while in a Nogales, Sonora border crossing line I watched a teenager climb over the steel fence into Nogales Arizona. In the local Safeway parking lot I saw men handcuffed then pushed into the back of a Border Patrol van. This spring, again on I-8, off the roadside we saw five camouflage-clad men carrying assault weapons crouched and running through a boulder field. Just last monthBorder Patrol agents shot dead an alleged drug smuggler on a local golf course after he fled his SUV containing about 500 pounds of baled marijuana. Right now over 1000 illegal minors are being warehoused in Nogales about 30 miles south.

Border Insecurity CoverSo I was led to this brand new book, Border Insecurity for some  on-the-ground information.

Tucsonian, border security expert and consultant Sylvia Longmire does an admirable job of bringing readers up-to-date on the current situation at the border. Dense with facts, light on rant or jargon, Longmire’s book offers a cogent, non-partisan contribution to the ongoing conversation on border issues. Longmire divides illegal border crossers into three general types: drug smugglers and the drug cartels behind them; potential terrorists; and those seeking work. Recently Mexican drug cartels have taken over “coyote” operations and now use economic migrants as “mules”— slaves forced to carry drugs over the border or else. And as cartels become increasing violent, spillover effects plague Arizona’s border, placing additional burdens on already overstretched state, county and local law enforcement as well as the 5000+ Border Patrol agents who now cover the Tucson and Yuma Districts.

Topics range from the border “fence” (real and virtual) and other technical fixes, to dogs trained to sniff out drugs in cars, to the barbaric actions often involved in crossing, to money laundering, to what’s happening at the Canadian border.

Her major conclusion is that tough decisions must be made to develop realistic Federal policies, plans and benchmarks, rather than having a frustrated Congress impose strict but unrealistic legislative metrics to measure border control “success”, for example the pie-in-the-sky 95% reduction in illegal crossings currently proposed. Since the vast majority are crossing for jobs she posits they do not pose a direct threat and should be dealt with separately from the obvious homeland security risks posed by lawless drug cartels and potential terrorists. She also recommends closer scrutiny of the real value of costly high tech “solutions”—now deployed or dreamed of. It’s an eye-opening synopsis of our current situation which also offers some hope for the future.

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The border crossing is ominous—a monolithic multi-story oddly curved building. Cars inch beneath it in multiple lanes, like the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. We park at the Nogales, AZ McDonald’s and walk the two blocks toward the crossing. All the signs are in Spanish and there’s an impressive sidewalk selection: dirt cheap shoes, auto parts, restaurantes, pesos to dollars converted at narrow walk-up windows.

We skirt a maze of orange waist-high barriers, through one of those subway-style spinning double door exits and down a long, covered open-air corridor. A blind man plays a portable organ. A knot of men wait as we come out into the sunshine. “Taxi?”

Plaza, Nogales, Sonora

We’ve chosen a dentist who advertises in the local phone book and promises to be only feet from the crossing. It’s true. We need only to walk around a long, low building housing a variety of farmacias, hair salons, public restrooms and food stands before entering a leafy plaza. The dentist is directly across the way.

The Wall, Plaza

At this end of the plaza is The Wall, at the other a roundabout, a statue in its center. It’s impossible to see what the statue is of, as the cars speed around the circle, honking and cutting each other off. Although the Nogales, AZ Burger King is clearly visible it’s obvious we’re in another country. Livelier. Brighter. More colorful. Dirtier.

We end up having to make five visits. On our first trip we’re directed about three blocks away toward a big downtown hotel for lunch. That’s about as far as we venture and it appears it’s near the edge of the decidedly tourist zone.

Plaza Nogales

The Wall

On another visit, after looking at the blocks-long line, we decide to brave the roundabout traffic to reach a nearby second crossing just down a grimy side street. We wait in a slightly shorter but still long, long line. A man is selling food he’s grilled on a brazier in the open bed of his pick up. A woman sits at his truck’s makeshift counter, eating a burrito. The wind picks up. All at once it rains, washing trash and oil down the street. I’m glad I have a sweater and that the waiting line is covered. The Wall marches up the steep hill on our right.

Crossing back takes almost an hour. Our Border Patrol officers are mostly gruff, sometimes unpleasant. Each time there is that brief frisson of fear: What if my passport isn’t enough? I glance at the barred room they’re leading the young woman ahead of me toward.

The rain and the crossing has turned this May day very cold.

Battlement on the Border

Old Downtown Nogales, AZ

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