Living Life Under Federal Watch On The Border
August 05, 2013

Any immigration reform bill is likely to include plans to boost security along the southwest border. Proposals on the table include more drones, more cameras, more boots on the ground. And some of that surveillance infrastructure will settle around Jim McManus’s farm in southern Arizona.

Michel Marizco
Jim McManus, on his farm in Arivaca, Arizona

McManus lives about 25 miles north of Mexico in the small town of Arivaca. Pigs and chickens and peacocks run around in their pens. The air is pungent with the musky smell of his goats. McManus grew up in southern Arizona and he’s seen the changes to border law enforcement. Mostly he’s noticed that the enforcement doesn’t sit on the actual border. It is  all around him. He points at a hill north of his property.

“I spend the morning building up fences, putting things back, gathering up my cows, putting the horses where they need to be. All the while, I’ve got border patrol and the sheriff parked on the hill watching me with glasses, treating me like I am the bad guy,” he said.

Mexico is a half hour away, but this region is already under a level of federal surveillance seen nowhere else in the country. Driving his kids to school to a nearby town means McManus passes through two federal checkpoints - where he’s briefly questioned -  and 11 highway cameras monitored by federal drug agents. Add to that, the drones, surveillance planes and helicopters that regularly patrol the skies above southern Arizona.  The surveillance regime creates a lot of watchful eyes.

“If you conduct business here, you live here, you’re always being watched, you’re always being stopped,” he said.

In the Senate's border security proposal a compromise was reached: the Senate agreed to limit border drones to three miles of California’s border. Not so for southern Arizona or South Texas, or New Mexico. In these states, those drones can fly 100 miles inland.

“There’s just not enough of us in the rest of this border region to be significant in the decision making on this.”

It is all part of a plan aimed at achieving 24-7 border surveillance. 

Terry Kirkpatrick lives just south of McManus in the village of Tubac. He is a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement official and is skeptical that flooding this area with more agents will deter organized crime. He lays out all the border law enforcement that are already here

“Oh, it’s astronomical,” he said, rattling off all the different agencies: two thousand federal agents, two county sheriff departments earning money from federal drug interdiction; more local police from inside Arizona. Then, military, and sometimes, National Guard. His real concern: drug trafficking.

“Something’s not working. There’s something broken that we have that much manpower, that much surveillance in Santa Cruz county, which is the smallest county in arizona, and we’re not able to stem anything.”

Most civil rights organizations concede that the federal government has the right to surveillance within a certain distance of the border.  But the quest for a secure border gets close to crossing the line. And sometimes privacy advocates say, it oversteps. Jennifer Lynch is with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The group found Homeland Security isn’t just monitoring the highways and ports of entry but are also recording people’s movements in the larger border region, whether or not they cross into Mexico.

“And then they’re sharing that data with state and local law enforcement as well. We’ve seen this down in San Diego where the border Patrol agents down there are collecting license plate data and sharing it with a regional database.”

Supporters of the Senate’s so-called border surge amendment to beef up security believe it’s a necessary compromise to pass immigration reform. Here’s Senator John McCain on CNN, last June:

We’ll be the most militarized zone since the Berlin Wall.” 

He’s dialed back the push for more agents, saying the border doesn’t need 20,000 more Border Patrol agents. But he still believes increased surveillance is a necessity.

And all that, right in Jim McManus’s front yard.