Illegal immigrant arrests quietly on the downslide in Nogales

Illegal immigrant arrests quietly on the downslide in Nogales

CREATED Feb 6, 2012

Reporter: Steve Nuñez

NOGALES, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - With illegal immigration still a hot-button issue kept in the forefront mostly by politicians, quietly the number of illegal immigrants arrested in Nogales dropped by nearly half last year. But while the numbers are down, the danger levels are still very high and the U.S. Border Patrol is still not ready to declare "operational control."

The terrain along the Nogales border is rugged and mountainous. It's not easy to give chase or to arrest illegal immigrants and drug smugglers coming across.

9 On Your Side went on a ride-a-long with U.S. Border Patrol agents to tour a remote area along the border fence just east of the small border city.

Agent Mario Escalante said when he was a field agent ten years ago this same area was considered "out of control."

"there was lots of dope through here especially at night," said Escalante. "They would conceal themselves on that side wait for the trucks to pass to come over and they'd be all over the place."

But today, the tide has turned.

The number of arrests reported in the Nogales station dropped 43% from 32,874 arrests in 2010 to 18,626 last year.

9 On Your Side confirmed, the stronger, taller new see-through bollard-style border fence is deterring people from crossing illegally.

"And the majority of the group is I can't climb it and I'm not going to climb it," said Escalante.

Meanwhile, Leslie Lawson, newly assigned Chief Agent in Charge, also credits more radar technology, better roads, the Arizona Nation Guard soldiers and doubling the number of agents from 300 in 1998 to more than 600 in 2012.

"And we're putting pressure on the organizations that may enter to utilize those canyons and having a bigger and bigger presence everyday out in those canyons," said Lawson.

Lawson denies claims by some politicians that for every illegal immigrant arrested three or four make it past the agents.

Lawson said, "It's easy for critics to do the arm chair quarter-backing saying they don't really know how many crossed."

However, critics still point to an escalation in violence in Mexico that often spills over to the U.S.

In 2010, smugglers shot and killed agent Brian Terry while a team of agents were tracking a drug rip-off crew near Rio Rico.

Last January, 17-year old Ramses Barron Torres was shot and killed when agents said rock throwers hit them.

Then last week, Mexican authorities say an agent who had rocks thrown at him fired a shot that hit a smuggling suspect who was being held on the Mexico side of the border fence.

Lawson responded, "Can we do more? Always. That's what I would say to the critics the border could be more secure well everything and anything could be more secure."

9 On Your Side Reporter Steve Nuñez asked: Is this something that you can confidently say, like Yuma is proclaiming, yeah this border is under operational control?"

"I won't say the war is done because we're constantly having to look for where the adversary may be shifting but this is their last hole," answered Lawson.

The Tucson sector, which includes Nogales stretches 272 miles and remains the most popular corridor for illegal border crossers and drug smugglers.

Overall, the Tucson sector has seen a drop in the total number of illegal immigrant arrests.