TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - New numbers just out by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows more than 132,000 migrants were arrested in May 2019, the highest monthly total in 13 years.
But there’s one spot in southern Arizona that is seeing a decrease in arrests - Douglas.
Douglas shares a border with Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico – once a hotspot for illegal migration and drug trafficking.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Dion Ethell, who heads the station in Douglas says traffic across the board is down in the area.
“The year 2000 was our high-water mark, nearly 235,000 illegal aliens apprehended during the course of that year, we’re a far cried from that, less than 1 percent. In the early 2000s, there was very little infrastructure here and so hence the large volume of numbers of crossers – obviously leading the way in terms of Tucson sector,” said Ethell.
Much of the border in Douglas used to be made up of fencing built from Vietnam-era helicopter landing mats. It’s low and you can’t see what’s coming from the other side. The majority of that has now been upgraded.
“We now have more than 37 miles of vehicle barrier and pedestrian fencing which is the vast majority of our area of operation,” said Ethell.
Douglas has also stepped up its surveillance with cameras, sensors, radar packages, and fixed or mobile technology.
Thanks to those upgrades and agents, Ethell says they just aren’t seeing those large groups of migrants.
CBP says there’s another reason for a decrease in arrests in Douglas – specifically teens smuggling drugs.
Because it can be hard to prosecute teenagers federally, CBP turned to Cochise County and Prosecutor Brian McIntyre for help.
“We were operating as a training ground for future loads and future scouts, they would be apprehended and then immediately returned with no consequences whatsoever,” said McIntyre.
Cochise County is one of the first jurisdictions in the state and the country to step in. Charging 34 teenagers in the first six months of the program alone. That number was down to just two in 2018 and zero so far this year.
A teen charged with drug smuggling now faces probation or up to five years behind bars for a felony drug charge.
“Everybody talked about how harsh it was, but harsh is the kid that we got pictures of, he lost a load and they took a 2 x 4 to his entire back side,” said McIntyre.
The program is steering more and more teens away from becoming criminals and pulling more drugs off the streets. The County and Border Patrol often visit local high schools to educate students about the consequences they could face if they get involved with the drug trade.
“It’s gone to something that was very prevalent to something that is almost non-existent,” said Ethell.
Other areas are now turning to Douglas to try and replicate the success they have had.
“I think that’s part of the key is this whole of government approach and continuing our efforts out here and continuing to build on what we’ve already gained,” said Ethell.
CBP also told KOLD News 13, that it’s the criminal element and smugglers that ultimately dictate where people cross along the border. Many times, choosing the path of least resistance and at least right now, that’s not in Cochise County.