Merchants: Customers avoid us; agents cite improved security
GREEN VALLEY – Local business owners say a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 19 north of Tubac is killing tourism, putting residents in harm’s way and costing millions of dollars in home sales.
But Border Patrol officials credit the checkpoint with helping them seize tons of illegal drugs, make hundreds of arrests and boost security in the area.
Opposition to the checkpoint has heated up since an expansion was announced last week.
“The checkpoint is a safety hazard to the communities north and south of us,” said Carol Cullen, executive director of the Tubac Chamber of Commerce.
Cullen is concerned that smugglers looking to get around the checkpoint are driven up the Santa Cruz River, Anza Trail or along railroad tracks and gas lines, pushing them closer to homes and people.
The “temporary” checkpoint has been in place since 2007, when a rule requiring the Border Patrol to change sites every two weeks and championed by former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe expired.
In June, the Border Patrol will add $1.5 million in “interim” facilities that include a modular building, outdoor lighting and a canopy to protect agents and their search dogs from heat, rain and wind.
A planned $27 million permanent checkpoint could be years off, but its funding is included in the 2008-09 fiscal year budget for the Department of Homeland Security.
Mike Scioli, a spokesman for the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol, understands the opposition but points out that many residents are thankful for the “second layer of defense” against smugglers and other criminals.
Recently, the sector reported a decrease in arrests at the checkpoint, “which means it’s working,” Scioli said.
Even with a decrease, the numbers are formidable: From October 2008 through March 2009, agents at the checkpoint seized 19,000 pounds of marijuana and made more than 300 arrests, Scioli said.
Out of 20 sectors in the United States, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector is the busiest, accounting for more than 50 percent of marijuana seizures and 44 percent of all arrests, he said.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Scioli said.
After two years of having the temporary checkpoint in place, some business owners in the quaint, historical town of Tubac still eye it with disdain.
The Crowe’s Nest clothing boutique owner David Camet said he relies heavily on shoppers from communities north of the checkpoint. He said some customers, especially those from Green Valley, have called the checkpoint an inconvenience.
“People only come in now if they have to,” Camet said. “They don’t come to browse and enjoy a shopping day because they don’t want to have to wait 20 minutes in a line of cars to get home.”
Gary Hembree, owner of Old Presidio Traders, said the checkpoint has “done nothing to help business during these hard economic times.”
He said he has had Canadian customers ask if a passport is needed to get back through the checkpoint, and added that it creates an atmosphere of apprehension and confusion that drives away return customers.
But Don Stout of Tucson, who was shopping in Tubac last week with out-of-town company, said driving through the checkpoint doesn’t bother him.
“The checkpoint makes me feel secure,” Stout said. “I don’t think it should scare anybody, unless they have something to hide.”
Real estate agents said they have lost millions of dollars in sales because of the checkpoint.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’m not going to drive through that thing every day,’ or that Tubac seems like a high-crime area,” said Zachary Freeland, director of new home sales for Brasher Realty in Tubac.