Key elements of the Border Patrol's strategic plan to secure the border with Mexico are not in place, including specific timelines and resources needed by the agency to provide the security, according to a new federal report.
The report by the Government Accountability Office is recommending the agency develop a time frame for assessing its needs along the Southwest border - including where to station agents and technology - and to develop a timeline for meeting security goals.
U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat from Tucson, along with U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, asked the GAO to review how the Border Patrol manages its resources on the Southwest border.
"To ensure the border is secure, we must define our goals and deploy resources where they are needed most," Barber said in a news release. "I call upon the Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security to develop smarter strategies and tactics and a better way to measure border security."
He plans two public meetings on the report later this month in Douglas and Tucson.
Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, could not be reached for comment, but Department of Homeland Security officials said in the report that it agreed with the recommendations and it would come up with specifics by November.
Barber said Border Patrol agents are doing an "exemplary job," but "if you can't measure progress, you can't talk about progress."
In fiscal year 2011, 18,500 agents apprehended more than 327,000 illegal immigrants and made more than 17,150 drug seizures along the Southwest border, including the Tucson Sector.
The Tucson Sector, which covers all of the Arizona border with Mexico except for the Yuma area, includes 13 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border but accounts for about 38 percent of all drug seizures and 37 percent of all apprehensions across the entire Southwest border.
But border apprehensions in the Tucson Sector, as in all the Southwest, have been decreasing. From fiscal 2006 to 2011, they declined by 68 percent in the Tucson Sector. The GAO attributed those declines not only to enhanced efforts by the Border Patrol but also to the downturn in the U.S. economy.
Over the last several years the Border Patrol has received funding that has helped it increase the number of agents and increase the use of technology to thwart smugglers.
Customs and Border Protection spent more than $4 billion to secure the U.S. border with Mexico in fiscal 2011, according to the report. From fiscal 2004 to 2011, the number of Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border nearly doubled from 9,500 to 18,500.
While progress is being made, Barber thinks there's still room for improvement.
"When I speak to the ranchers who live east of Douglas and they tell me drug flow and illegal immigrant flow has not changed significantly, why aren't we putting resources in those areas?" Barber asked.
GAO officials talked with 13 ranchers in the Tucson Sector who said the number of illegal immigrants coming across their properties had declined but the level of drug smuggling had remained constant. They were also concerned that illegal trafficking had affected land values and driven up costs in the ranching industry.
The biggest concern for ranchers is drug trafficking because of the weapons used by smugglers, said Ray Borane, former mayor of Douglas.
The U.S. economy, coupled with enforcement and anti-illegal-immigration laws like Arizona's SB 1070, have helped bring the number of illegal crossers down, he said, but hasn't affected drug trafficking in the same way. "I don't know that there's more, but it's constant because there's a much greater monetary demand than for workers," he said.
Barber said he would like to see more resources shifted to the Tucson area.
More resources are needed, said Art Del Cueto, president of the National Border Patrol Council's union local in Tucson, adding that the agents in the field are the ones who need to be asked what they should be.
"If I'm going to find out how to bake a cake, I'm going to ask the cook of the restaurant, not the owner of the building. And I think that's the issue," he said.
IF YOU GO
• What: U.S. Rep. Ron Barber's office briefings on GAO report on Border Patrol operations.
• When: 5:30-7 p.m. Jan. 28 in the city of Douglas Visitors Center, and Jan. 29 at Pima Community College East Campus, 8181 E. Irvington Road.
• Information: Those who want to attend the briefings can RSVP to AZ02.RSVP@mail.house.gov
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.