Note: pretty much on target, but have to wonder if CBP personnel not
taken from the ports, where did they come from? How many diverted to
CBP at Border Patrol checkpoint raises port staffing frustrations
By Hank Stephenson
Published Tuesday, April 19, 2011 11:28 AM CDT
Cruising down a cool desert interstate close enough to the
international boundary line that the distance is measured in
kilometers, not miles, a shuttle van from Nogales heading north
passes its first warning: a sign reading "Border Patrol Checkpoint, 2
But when the van pulls up to the big white tent towering over and
across three lanes of traffic, the federal officers who pull it to
the side of the road are wearing blue uniforms, not the green ones of
the Border Patrol, and their badges say U.S. Customs and Border
Protection – the agency that usually works the U.S. Ports of Entry,
like those a half-hour back down the road in Nogales.
The Border Patrol checkpoint along Interstate 19 has become part of
everyday life for residents of Santa Cruz County, who are used to
stopping 25 miles north of the border and identifying their
citizenship. But the recent addition of U.S. Customs and Border
Protection officers to the Border Patrol's big tent has some people
questioning the agency's priorities.
Officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection lend a hand at the
Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 19 on Friday. Photo / Terry
Ketron, Rhombic Sky Images
Since the beginning of March, Customs and Border Protection – under
orders from the newly formed Arizona Joint Field Command, an entity
designed to increase cooperation between CBP and BP – has been
helping to man the checkpoint. That's becoming a point of contention
for local merchants, who say the "boys in blue" are a scarce resource
that's desperately needed at the Nogales ports of entry to keep the
lines manageable and facilitate the international commerce that the
city survives on.
For its part, Joint Field Command calls it an exemplary program where
the two agencies are combining forces on their common mission of
securing the border – and insists the CBP officers weren't pulled
from the ports to man the checkpoint. Even so, CBP's port director in
Nogales says he's worried that with the ports understaffed, and the
increased Border Patrol enforcement between the ports, it won't be
long before smugglers recognize the crossings as the weak link. And
some local leaders say that instead of stressing economic concerns
with Washington decision-makers who are fixated on border security,
they need to shift gears and raise the national security alarm if the
ports are ever to be properly staffed.
The assertion that the CBP officers weren't pulled directly from the
ports to the checkpoint isn't much consolation for Bruce Bracker, a
third-generation merchant in Nogales who owns the Bracker's
Few people know the cost of the wait times at the border better than
Bracker. From his shop on Morley Avenue, he has a clear view of the
Morley pedestrian gate and hears complaints about the lines almost on
a daily basis from his customers, about 80 percent of whom come from
"How long do you wait in line at a grocery store until you become
impatient?" he asks. "Maybe five minutes. As a merchant, if the line
(at the port) is an hour, I don't even here about it anymore. I hear
if it's two or three hours."
He said it all boils down to manpower, which CBP is sorely short on.
For example, on Benito Juarez's birthday, a Mexican holiday and three-
day weekend in March, the Morley gate was only half staffed, he said.
It nearly killed what could have been a great weekend for his store.
"I heard about it all weekend," he said. "It was a three-day weekend
and it could have been huge for us, but people walked up to the
Morley gate, they looked at the line that was down to the railroad
tracks and they said, 'Forget it, I'm not waiting in line for an hour
and a half.'"
Seeing CBP officers at the I-19 checkpoint, even if they weren't
pulled off the ports, makes him irritated, Bracker said. For months,
he's been pleading with Joint Field Command to put more people on the
line, he said, and now they're sending them farther from the line.
"For me, you have (CBP officers) that have gone through a year and a
half of training, a lot of them are really seasoned officers, and
they're checking American citizens in the United States – it's
ridiculous," he said. "Put their training to use, put them on the line."
Joint Field Command
John Schwamm, acting director of planning with the Arizona Joint
Field Command, said the checkpoint collaboration is the best possible
use of both agencies. That's because the CBP specialists in
fraudulent documents and secret vehicle compartments are teaching
Border Patrol new skills at the checkpoint, while allowing more
Border Patrol agents to get out into the field.
The CBP officers at the checkpoints have freed up more Border Patrol
agents to patrol the west desert, where the smuggling action is,
Schwamm said, and if smugglers start to flood the ports, the beauty
of the Joint Field Command is they will be able to adapt and send
more people to the ports.
Joint Field Command can even send Border Patrol to work the ports if
necessary, he said. In fact, Border Patrol agents have already been
helping on outbound checks.
"That's the important key here, we're all CBP," Schwamm said, noting
the fact that the Border Patrol falls under the organizational
umbrella of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "We're trying to take
a holistic view of this, (we're) bringing in the resources to help
everybody do their job – expand, mobilize, be flexible and respond."
All 13 checkpoints in Arizona are now being jointly operated by
Border Patrol and CBP, Schwamm said. For security reasons, he
wouldn't say how many CBP officers are working the checkpoints, but
reiterated that not one of them was pulled from the ports for the
The CBP officers at the checkpoint have been specifically sent from
around the country to assist Border Patrol in their mission of
securing the western Arizona deserts and disrupting smuggling
operations near there, Schwamm said.
He said that nobody questions that the ports are understaffed, but
he's looking strategically to best use the forces he has on hand. The
ports need more people, he said, but that decision is ultimately up
All the stakeholders along the border have their own priorities and
needs, CBP spokesman Brian Levin added. Joint Field Command's goal is
to look at all the needs, and decide what is most pressing and what
has to be put on the backburner.
"At this point right now, (the priority is) getting agents out in the
field," he said. "In order to get the agents out in the fields we
bring field operations, we bring CBP officers out here to the
checkpoints to relieve these agents… Yes, we need people at the
ports, but there are other issues that we need to look at from the
The Nogales Ports of Entry are severely understaffed, said Guadalupe
Ramirez, Nogales port director for CBP. Right now, he is short
roughly 250 officers, and that's before the expanded Mariposa Port of
For an example of CBP getting the short end of the staffing stick,
locals need look no further than the most recent 10-point border
security plan propsed by Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona.
The plan calls for 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and 500 new CBP
officers, a 10-to-one ratio that has been repeated in recent rounds
of hiring. Last year, Customs and Border Protection graduated 1,215
Border Patrol agents and only 117 CBP officers.
"I'm glad (Border Patrol is) getting the resources they need, I just
wish we had a champion like they have," Ramirez said. "I just wish
that somebody would say, 'Listen, the ports are an integral part of
border security, it's not just between the ports.' You cant have a
weak link, and what we're developing is a weak link."
In order to fully staff the ports for Semana Santa, a week-long
Mexican holiday starting this week, Ramirez said he has had to cut
back on officers before the holiday and will have to reduce them
again after. Even then, he is using a lot of his overtime allotment
and burning out the officers, he said.
Many of Ramirez's officers will be lucky to get five hours of sleep
between double shifts during the busy week, he said. It's hard on the
officers and bad for national security to have them working so much,
During the peak travel time of the holiday, all lanes at the ports
will be open, Ramirez said. But every time CBP makes a seizure, an
officer will have to handle it and they will have to close down a
line to wait for backup.
As the country pushes to build more fences and seal the border,
Ramirez says he is worried that the ports may become the weak link in
border security, and that drug and human smugglers will funnel their
operations to exploit that weakness.
"The smugglers will take advantage of that," Ramirez said. "They'll
say, 'You know what, it won't take much to overwhelm the ports, lets
send a bunch of stuff and if they catch one or two (loads), the rest
will get through.'"
"How easy would it be to overwhelm a place that is so short of
resources?" he asked rhetorically. "It would be very easy."
That's the message that needs to be sent in order to get Congress to
staff the ports, said Luis Ramirez Thomas, an advisor to the local
The message that the ports need more staff in order to keep the lines
short isn't working, he said, and Congress would be more likely to
fund additional officers at the port if they made the argument about
border security instead of border economics.
"(Congress) found the funding for Border Patrol, they found the
funding for 3,000 (Transportation Security Agency) agents," he said.
"Why? Because they get headlines."
The argument that CBP needs more people to facilitate commerce and
isn't sexy, he said. That they're vulnerable to smugglers should get
the attention of Congress and maybe push them to fund the estimated
5,000 officers CBP needed nationwide.
In Texas, some have already turned to scare tactics to get attention
for their understaffed ports.
Mayor Richard Cortez of McAllen Texas, said in testimony this month
before a House subcommittee on border and maritime security that "the
criminal cartels are exploiting our weaknesses" at the ports,
according to news reports.
But Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino, who has made improving the city's
image a cornerstone of his administration, thinks that kind of
message is totally backwards, politically motivated and false.
"To start saying that it's about border security, that is wrong," he
said. "That will bring us back to that same message created by people
from outside our community saying the border is out of control and
the border is a war zone. We cannot go back to that."
Garino said criminals and drug smugglers aren't increasing attempts
to get through the ports of entry, and that's proved by the wild ways
they try to get around it – by tunneling, flying and going far out
into the desert to cross. He said he hasn't seen any numbers that
suggest that cartels have moved their operations towards the ports.
Garino has personally spoken to CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin on more
than one occasion about the need for more personnel at the ports, but
not because it's a safety risk – but because residents need to get
back and forth and the city needs those shoppers. Bersin has told him
he understands, Garino said.
"The issue with the ports is that there's visas, there's commerce
that comes across, there are people who come across to shop, people
who want to do business and do everything legal," he said. "Being
understaffed like that, of course it's going to be a problem, but
it's not for security reasons."