Before 2007, the Sheriff's Department in Pima County, Ariz., had no border crime unit and no official operation to track and seize illegal immigrants sneaking into the U.S.
But that would change. By mid-2007, the border crime unit came into existence, supporting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's regional efforts to secure one of the busiest sectors on the Southwest border.
Since its inception, the unit has referred 1,450 illegal immigrants to border patrol; seized 30,000 pounds of marijuana, 126 vehicles, 44 weapons and more than $1.1 million in cash; and has made nearly 450 non-immigration arrests, according to Lt. Jeff Palmer, border crime unit commander for the Pima County Sheriff's Department.
Technology, he said, has played a huge role in border patrol operations. With tools that can scan miles of rough terrain, identity bodies by heat signatures and pick up vibrations in the ground, the unit can maximize efforts with limited personnel.
"The technology allows us to cover a lot more geography with pinpoint precision," Palmer said. "It extends our reach in the desert. We use it as a force multiplier."
In April, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a new immigration bill into law, creating a frenzy of national controversy. The law requires that immigrants carry registration documents at all times, and gives the police authority to question people who they suspect might be living in the U.S. illegally. A federal district judge has put the tough standards on hold for the time being, but vocal critics have complained that the law will foster racial profiling.
On the borders, however, agents have been busy using technology to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country. The Tucson Sector Border Patrol uses various tools to "to more rapidly identify threats and enhance agents' situational awareness at night and in remote areas of the border," according to Colleen Agle, public information officer for the Tucson Sector Communications Division.
Consider the Mobile Surveillance System, which agents started using in 2008. The mobile camera/radar system has thermal imaging capabilities and a GPS range finder. It can scan a 180-degree swath of land in about 10 seconds, Agle said, and detect a border incursion more than 10 miles away. In the field, such accuracy is critical.
"An incursion made by a group of armed smugglers requires a different law enforcement response than a group of individuals walking along a path carrying only backpacks," she said. "Also, if a border incursion is made by an animal, resources are not deployed and wasted, so they are available to respond to actual threats."
In addition to cameras, Palmer said, Pima County's border crime unit uses ground-sensing radar that picks up motion on known smuggling trails.
"Sometimes, it's animals, sometimes it's truck smugglers," he said, "so it really depends."
In 2009, Agle said, border patrol agents began using Non Intrusive Inspection technologies to combat smuggling of humans and contraband at checkpoints. The technology works like a portable X-ray machine, which agents can use to scan vehicles and detect anomalies.
"From Oct. 1, 2009 to July 31, 2010, the Tucson Sector Border Patrol seized more than 867,500 pounds of drugs exceeding $694 million in value," noted the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.
Even though technology enhances border security efforts, Agle said, the equipment is "only one piece of the puzzle."
"In order to be effective," she said, "technology must be combined with the appropriate mix of manpower and infrastructure."
Photo courtesy of the Tucson Sector Border Patrol