The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector has stopped moving its I-19 and other checkpoints twice a month, now that a congressional requirement is off the books.
Agency officials are pleased by the change, but it's unwelcome news for many residents and business owners in Tubac and Green Valley.
The retirement of outgoing Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz. — who championed the congressionally mandated rule — paved the way for Tucson Sector Chief Michael Nicley to deliver a long-awaited directive to his agents on Nov. 8: Leave the checkpoints where they are.
Congress had withheld funding for permanent inspection stations since 1999 and required the sector to move them every seven or 14 days since 2002. The requirement was omitted from the fiscal 2007 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill.
For now, officials in the Tucson Sector said, the sector is operating full-time checkpoints at six locations throughout Southern Arizona: on Interstate 19 north of Tubac; on Arizona 85 between Lukeville and Ajo; on Arizona 90 north of its intersection with Arizona 82; on Arizona 80 north of Tombstone; on U.S. 191 between Sunizona and Sunsites; and on Arizona 286 between Sasabe and Three Points.
The Tucson Sector has initiated discussions with Border Patrol headquarters in Washington and the Arizona Department of Transportation to begin selecting locations, getting permits and permission, and acquiring funding for permanent inspection stations, Nicley said.
In a 2005 request to Congress, the agency proposed three locations for permanent checkpoints:
● On Arizona 85 north of Ajo at milepost 17.8.
● On Interstate 19 south of Green Valley at kilometer post 53.
● On Arizona 90 north of the intersection with Arizona 82 at milepost 304.
Nicley said the inspection stations will be on those highways, but the exact locations are not yet final.
Wherever they end up, permanent checkpoints will allow agents to conduct inspections more efficiently and safely, Nicley said. They will also allow the agency to focus its sensors and agents around the checkpoints, he said.
"The checkpoint itself is not where you are going to see the activity; it's those ancillary routes where you are going to see the activity," Nicley said. "Where we have the tactical advantage."
The agency used to toggle its I-19 checkpoint between kilometer post 42 north of Tubac and kilometer post 25 south of Tubac. Moving the I-19 checkpoint north of Arivaca Road at kilometer post 53 south of Green Valley would help catch smugglers coming from both I-19 and Arivaca Road, he said.
But having a permanent checkpoint anywhere between Tubac and Green Valley concerns many residents and business owners, who say the occasional delays would inconvenience them and could deter visitors, who keep their businesses afloat.
"It doesn't bode well for people coming down here to shop," said Paul Trautman, owner of Tubac Deli & Coffee Co.
Border Patrol representatives will meet with Tubac, Green Valley and Sahuarita residents and business owners several times Dec. 18-20, said Carol Cullen, executive director of the Tubac Chamber of Commerce
"We're not happy with the checkpoints the way they are," Cullen said. "If we had our preference, the border would be secured at the border. This is a detriment to business in the Tubac area and to business south of Tubac."
The Greater Green Valley Chamber of Commerce opposed the creation of permanent checkpoints when they were proposed in 1997 and still opposes them today, said Jim DiGiacomo, executive director. But members will attend the meetings to give Border Patrol officials a chance to explain why the checkpoints are needed, he said.
Having the permanent checkpoint north of Tubac could be particularly costly during February when Tubac hosts its annual Festival of the Arts, which attracts nearly 15,000 people daily, Trautman said.
With the majority of their customers coming from Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tucson and Green Valley, the checkpoint could deter people, said Jane Lowder, owner of Jane's Attic. "They come down here and go through it (a checkpoint) once and don't want to do it again."
In addition to discouraging visitors from coming to Tubac, the checkpoint forces illegal border crossers to cross through property and around homes there, said Carol St. John, a gallery owner in Tubac.
"Everybody knows about it so it splatters people into the hills, which mean everybody is dealing with it," St. John said.
Not everybody in Tubac opposes the idea of the permanent checkpoints. Laurence McNutt, who has lived in Tubac for three years, scoffs at business owners' complaints that the checkpoint will keep people away.
"I can't accept that," he said. "Why should somebody be intimidated because they have to go through a Border Patrol checkpoint?"
There are 33 permanent checkpoints on highways along the border in Texas, New Mexico and California, but none in the Tucson Sector, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
A pair of recent government audits questioned the effectiveness of temporary checkpoints.
From 2001 to 2004, apprehensions per agent-hours declined by 77 percent at Tucson Sector checkpoints while they stayed the same or increased slightly at permanent checkpoints in Texas and California, the Government Accountability Office report found. The report didn't determine, however, if the congressional mandate was the cause.
In November 2005, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General recommended that officials reconsider the restrictions on the temporary checkpoints after investigators concluded that permanent ones would be safer and more effective.
It's a long overdue move that makes sense in a time when cell phone-carrying drug smugglers aren't surprised by roving checkpoints, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agency's union.
"It was an idea that always confounded people familiar with the Border Patrol's operations — as to why Mr. Kolbe insisted on tying our hands," Bonner said.
With the mobile checkpoints they currently operate, agents stand exposed on the highway, at best protected from the weather by overpasses. Spotlights, space heaters and any other electronic devices are powered by generators. Mobile trailers are used as offices and detention rooms for apprehended illegal entrants.
In fiscal year 2006, 7 percent of all apprehensions and 8 percent of all marijuana seizures registered by Border Patrol agents in the Nogales Station occurred at or within five miles of the Interstate 19 checkpoints, said Sean King, Tucson Sector spokesman.
The permanent checkpoints eventually could each have a building for offices, computers and technology, and permanent lights and cameras on the highway.
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