Group would like permanent spot closer to border
LAREDO, Texas – Gary Brasher paused for a moment to take in the seven lanes of concrete, the drug-sniffing dogs and floodlights.
“I feel like I’m walking across the border,” the Tubac real estate developer said.
Which wouldn’t have bothered him, except the state-of-the-art U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint was 29 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Brasher flew to Laredo with five other Tubac-area residents last week to get a firsthand look at what the Border Patrol calls a template for what it would like to build in Arizona along Interstate 19 about 30 miles north of the border at Nogales.
While the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce this week endorsed the proposed permanent checkpoint, business leaders along I-19 are concerned about the checkpoint’s possible impact on the local economy and communities.
“We’re based on tourism,” said Sam Chilcote, a Tubac Golf Resort investor, and like Brasher, an officer in the Santa Cruz Valley Citizens Council. “Can you imagine the impression this gives? It looks like a military camp.”
For years, the Border Patrol operated temporary checkpoints in Arizona because former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe R-Ariz., questioned the effectiveness of permanent ones.
Once Kolbe announced his retirement last year, Congress gave the Border Patrol permission to maintain a stationary checkpoint, instead of moving it up and down the interstate. The Border Patrol opened a semipermanent checkpoint just north of Tubac in November.
Since then, Tubac residents have reported a dramatic uptick of illegal activity as drug and human smugglers try to skirt the checkpoint by crossing through their town.
Laredo Sector Chief Carlos Carillo said a permanent checkpoint would decrease the wait for travelers and ultimately reduce illegal activity along I-19. A permanent checkpoint such as the one in Laredo would come with high-tech sensors and cameras, allowing agents to patrol for miles around it, he said.
Carillo suggested other permanent checkpoints would likely follow the I-19 station, as they work best when operating with others. The Border Patrol has built permanent checkpoints in clusters. The Laredo sector has six.
The checkpoints are an annoyance for local residents, including himself, Carillo said, but a necessary tool in the battle to secure the border.
“We’re not talking about being late for an appointment,” said Nan Walden, a pecan farmer and rancher from Green Valley. “We’re asking whether or not we still want to live here. Tourists no longer want to come, and we all carry Glocks.”
Walden’s husband, Richard, piloted the group’s plane.
Following the tour, the group met with the Laredo Chamber of Commerce, whose members reported that the checkpoints hadn’t affected businesses because the checkpoints were far north of the town.
“If I had to drive through a checkpoint to go the grocery store or dry cleaners or bank, I’d probably feel differently,” said John Villarreal, chairman of the chamber’s board.
The Laredo checkpoint is largely surrounded by ranchlands, unlike I-19, which has developed rapidly over the years.
Brasher said it’s already impacted his business.
“I’ve had people who just signed a contract pass through a checkpoint call me and back out,” he said. “They say ‘I’m not going to prove my citizenship every time I go to the Safeway.’ ”
Brasher and the others form part of a group working on the checkpoints that will present its findings to community members and make recommendations to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Robert W. Gilbert. Giffords toured the Laredo checkpoint in early April.
Carol Cullen, who heads the Tubac Chamber of Commerce, stressed that the group wants the border secured.
“We just think that should happen at the border,” she said. “We feel like they’re moving the border farther north and giving up on the area south of the checkpoint like we’re a no man’s land.”