THE MAGAZINE

Holding the Line

By Teresa Anderson

On a typical day at the U.S.-Mexico border, officers arrest 3,256 people for illegal entry and seize 5,400 pounds of narcotics. That’s just the beginning.

The border between the United States and Mexico represents 2,000 miles of opportunity for drug smugglers, criminals, and potential terrorists who want to enter the country illegally. For the agencies charged with protecting that border, it represents an endless challenge.

To get some idea of what they are up against, consider the following small sampling of incidents from this year: In January, U.S. authorities announced that they had uncovered dozens of tunnels—some with drugs stored inside—stretching for miles under the Mexican border. In April, 19 people were arrested at the southern border for attempting to bring methamphetamine into the United States. In May, Customs officials shot and killed a driver who sped through a checkpoint while trying to bring in illegal immigrants. In June, officials arrested a woman trying to smuggle a nine-month-old infant into the United States. She turned out to be part of a complex child-smuggling ring.

Several groups within the Department of Homeland Security are responsible for border security, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Among these groups, it is the CBP officers who are often the first to face down threats, especially at the land border.

According to the CBP, on a typical day its officers seize an average of 5,400 pounds of illegal narcotics, arrest 3,256 people for attempting to enter the U.S. between legal entry points along the border, deny entry to 868 noncitizens and 45 criminal aliens, intercept more than 210 fraudulent documents, and rescue four illegal aliens who became ill or met with danger while attempting to cross the border. That’s not in a year or a month or a week; that’s just an average day.

Border protection can be divided into two distinct parts: land crossings at ports of entry and entry via water through the nation’s seaports. The area surrounding San Diego, California, provides a clear example of both of these challenges. With both a major seaport and several land ports of entry on the Mexican border, officials in San Diego must address every conceivable type of activity from legal border crossings to terrorism prevention.

To get a firsthand look at how they are tackling the problem, I spent some time in and around San Diego, riding with the Border Patrol along the U.S./Mexican border, scanning the San Diego harbor with harbor police, and observing the CBP in action as agents inspected vehicles and individuals crossing into the United States.

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