Masks, Walls and Security in a Divided Country
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Those things are finally good for something: They keep your face warm.” A woman is smoking a cigarette outside the Four Deuces Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, where the world’s most famous gunfight, 139 years ago, still keeps the town alive, its shops and businesses catering mostly to tourists, though almost none are around tonight. My wife Laurel and I, wearing masks, laugh and say something about the cold: The sun has gone down and it’s in the 40s. We had just arrived in town and, seeing the saloon’s large outside patio decked with garlands, decided to stop for a drink. But there is no one outside, save the woman smoking. To order, we’ll have to enter the saloon.
“Oh, you don’t have to wear those in here.” The bartender — young woman, friendly — greets us with information that is already clear from a glance at the patrons. “But whatever you’re comfortable with.” We leave them on and feel some stares. We take the drinks out to the patio where a sign notifies us that no weapons are allowed — the town likes its gunplay staged, three times a day at the O.K. Corral, for an admission fee. A song comes on over the speaker: “Christmas in Dixie,” by Alabama.
With glasses emptied, we return them to the bar and walk back out the front door. The woman smoking is still outside, now with a friend. “Have a merry Christmas,” she says as we walk by, but the words have an edge to them, a defiant tone — as if she’s testing us, wondering if the masked visitors will say “Happy holidays” in return. Laurel hears it, too. “Merry Christmas!” I reply. And as we head out onto a dark street, we hear them talk of the phrase being overtaken by political correctness.
We pick up dinner from Mario’s Bakery Café and I make the mistake of getting — hey, we’re in Tombstone — a pizza. We return to the RV for the night, in a public lot across the street from the old county courthouse, built in the shape of a cross one year after local lawmen — including the Earp brothers and their pal Doc Holliday — were put on trial for their role in the 1881 shootout. All were cleared. “I cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides,” ruled Judge Wells Spicer. The decision divided the town — some supported the lawmen, some the slain men. Controversies surrounding the justice system’s treatment of police are nothing new.
The next morning, 30 miles south in the old mining town of Bisbee, I meet Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels and several of his deputies. Inside their offices, one of the deputies reaches out to shake my hand. I freeze and, before I can think of a fist bump, I extend my hand. It’s the first time I’ve shaken hands in nine months.
Sheriff Dannels is an Army veteran with 37 years of law enforcement experience and a master’s degree in criminal justice. When he began in the sheriff’s office in the 1980s, Cochise County was acquiring the nickname “Cocaine Alley,” for all the drugs coming over the county’s 83-mile border with Mexico, mostly rural ranchland. “Cochise County has always been on the front line of smuggling,” he says. “The Sinaloa cartel is south of us. It’s a profit-greed game for them. Anything they can smuggle in the United States, they will do for a dollar bill. That’s what drives it — that and violence and fear.”
He calls human smuggling or trafficking modern-day slavery: “They’re paying about $6,000 a head to come across. They get three attempts” — and head-to-toe camouflage for the journey. “These people don’t have $6,000. So they’re servant to the cartels, whether it’s sex, gang labor, drug labor, whatever it may be. The torture these people go through is just incredible. And that’s where the humanitarian side comes from.”
He sees this humanitarian side — protecting the human rights of those being exploited and smuggled — as being a core part of his mission, in addition to protecting public safety for local residents and protecting national security for all Americans. As an example, he mentions a man recently reported missing by his wife, who lives in Mexico, after crossing over the border. “We have a group that came across here and one of the individuals involved in the group went missing. He’s on our Facebook page right now. We know he’s undocumented. And we sent a team and resources and technology trying to find him and we still haven’t. That’s a John and Jane Doe in the future, which means we’ll find the bones later, and it's really — those are tough.”
Today, he says, drug dealers are avoiding his county. “I’m telling you, we watch them every day” — his office has developed and deployed its own camera system. “They go around Cochise County every day to New Mexico, the counties adjacent to us.”
One reason: The sheriff has cracked down on one of the cartel’s favored tactics — enlisting teens as smugglers. About five years ago, youth smuggling was chronic. “We had 22 juveniles in 45 days that were bringing drugs into this county,” Dannels says — a majority of them Mexican, but some American kids, too. “Not one prosecution. The U.S. Attorney’s office would not prosecute them. They released them, no consequence” — exactly why the cartel kept recruiting them.
Sergeant Tim Williams explains what it was like on the ground: “We would catch them and they would go right back [to Mexico] and we would catch them the next day, if not sometimes eight hours [later] because they would already have been processed and sent back,” where they often faced a different form of justice. “If they lost their drugs, they would get a severe beating and then sent right back [to America]. And so we have numerous pictures of kids that are just beat with two-by-fours on their backside — they’re completely black and blue — or even in some senses possibly tortured.”
Sheriff Dannels developed a local program to prosecute juveniles. “We went from one or two in our facility right next door here” — the county jail — “to 36 a day, to show you how bad it was. One hundred percent of those kids went to prison for 1.5 years.” Today they are down to one juvenile — a year. “When you run a 100% conviction rate, you see the reduction in drugs.”
The number of illegal border crossings has tripled since March, to 2,700 a month, likely a result of the Trump administration’s decision to resume “catch-and-release.” Given the need for physical distancing during Covid-19, detention centers don’t have the space to hold migrants. Now, they are often simply sent back across the border.
Dannels knows that law enforcement is only one piece of the puzzle. “Immigration reform is so needed. It truly is. What is the process to get in this country? It takes years. Come on. Can we look at that? But people are so afraid of their parties. I blame Congress hard on this — all sides. I mean, Republicans will blame Democrats. Democrats will blame Republicans, but remember, Republicans had the House, Senate and the presidency and didn’t fix a damn thing. … We have to have a balanced immigration, progressive plan. We also need a balanced plan of border security, which is a balance of technology, staffing, physical — all that needs to come in play. One doesn’t fix it all. We all know that’s common sense, but can you get them to agree on any of that? Of course not. You’ve got from open borders to close it all. Folks, the answer’s in the middle. We all know that.”
He has a message for those who extol sanctuary cities. “I call it offensive when local leaders and state leaders say, ‘Come see us, get through that border, break the law, come see us and we’ll take care of you’” — because it puts his officers at even greater risk. “That’s offensive to what we’ve done here.”
Sergeant Williams — who leads the South Arizona Border Region Enforcement, or SABRE team, that Dannels began — takes me out in his truck to have a look at the border. Williams built the camera network the sheriff proudly touted, which uses AI to filter out non-human images and provide real-time data to the team. “Every time you hear that phone go ding” — he points at his cell phone — “that’s another group of illegal aliens or drug smugglers come across.”
He had no experience building a camera and communications network. “So I actually learned how to bounce signal [using] radio waves — it’s been awesome to learn.” His system, which he built for a little over $1 million, has been adopted by other jurisdictions across the southern border to California, and localities use it to alert the border patrol. “One of the border patrol supervisors about a year ago said in this valley right here, that my unit and our camera system does 80% of their work” — meaning that the cameras were responsible for 80% of what they were going after.
At the border town of Naco, we get out of the truck. There is a 20-foot-high fence built during the Obama administration, and now construction crews are installing a 30-foot-high steel-beamed fence directly behind it. The two walls together are a jarring sight that call to mind King Canute and the futility of trying to stop the tide.
I ask if anyone has tried to scale the taller fence yet.
“Absolutely. We catch them all the time.”
And how are they trying to scale it — with ropes?
“No, no. One of my guys used to be able to show you, but you literally grab it like this” — he extends his arms in a circle — “and they just shimmy right up that. I think the border patrol's already had quite a few fall off of it. They got seriously injured.”
The top of the fence is supposed to be sharp enough to prevent people from grabbing onto it. “But what they do is they just throw a blanket over it.”
Sometimes, they don’t even need to climb over — I’m astonished to learn the fence includes storm gates that are open half the year.
“During monsoon season, all these gates will be wide open and they'll leave them open, and there’s thousands of these gates across the border. You can see where they can lift them up. They’ll walk right through that. For months at a time, those will just be open, because if they don’t, the water will rip the whole fence apart. And I’ve seen that, where the fence is getting completely destroyed. The water will just take it right off.”
When they’re open, I ask, it makes the rest of the fence a moot point, right?
“Yeah. And that’s where our camera system comes into play, because we can saturate that area with the cameras and see them coming across and go after them.”
The fence extends only up to the nearby Chiricahua Mountains, but construction crews are carving their way alongside it — though only up to a point. As we travel up into the mountains, many miles of the border are marked by low-slung fence that is easy enough to step over, and there is no current plan or funding to change that.
It’s easy to seize on these gaps — people can walk around the fence, or even right through it! — to argue that the fence is useless. Sheriff Dannels was quick to say that it’s not a panacea, but his team sees it as an essential tool that makes it harder to cross into population centers, protecting border communities from drug and human trafficking. And wherever it exists, it buys law enforcement time to respond.
“That’s why we’re so adamant that you got to have something, because it gives us a fighting chance to try to get them,” says Sergeant Williams. “Several years ago, you would be standing right here” — we are in Naco, steps from houses — “and a group of 30 would run right into the community. And so the community here, being a port of entry, they really wanted to secure this and push [migrants] out to where the rural population was. But then you also have U.S. citizens that live out in the rural part. They’re just as important as anybody that lives inside the city.”
For many Americans, the fence is a canvas onto which we project broader beliefs about what the country should be. But standing beside it in Naco, I realize that for many people in border towns, it is something much simpler and more tangible: one way of several to push trafficking and illegal crossings away from their neighborhoods, into more remote areas. Even if it doesn’t solve the nation’s problem, it helps solve their problem.
Thinking about the day in Naco and the night before in Tombstone, I begin to wonder whether border walls are to many liberals what masks have been to many conservatives. Both sides are dismissive of these measures, seeing them as useless as a matter of practice, because they are incapable of solving the entire problem, and damaging as a matter of policy, because they chip away at our national character by striking at the heart of values we cherish — societal openness by liberals, individual freedom by conservatives.
Of course, assessing the wisdom of each policy requires balancing its benefits with its costs, but a fair accounting of both sides of the ledger is often blocked by partisan loyalties, ideological attachments, social pressures and overriding emotions. For liberals, acknowledging that border walls have some public safety benefits would risk appearing to be sympathetic to Trump’s attacks on foreigners. For conservatives, at least for much of this year, acknowledging masks have some public safety benefits risked appearing to be sympathetic to Democratic attacks on Republicans.
Sheriff Dannels wishes the national dialogue on the border were more grounded in the practicalities of public safety: “Politics, emotions, sensation[alism] have no business in policing. It truly doesn’t.” But in a democracy, where even sheriffs are elected, those forces shape the challenges facing all law enforcement agencies, including those patrolling the border. And until Congress acts to overhaul a badly broken immigration system, the challenges will only increase.
“You hear all that?” Williams asks me.
We are back in cell service, having driven down from the mountain, and his phone is lighting up with dings.
“That’s how many groups have crossed since we’ve been over there. How many was that, 30?”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.
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