A storm-water channel connecting the higher-elevation Nogales, Sonora, brings runoff into Nogales, Ariz., and can also deliver illegal immigrants willing to risk drowning when the waters rise.
That's not the only way people come over the border. The easiest is through the fence. The border fence is made of 25-foot-high steel girders and it snakes off into the distance on the hilly outskirts of Nogales (Ariz.). But it's little hindrance to determined smugglers. Border Patrol agents refer to it as a "30-second delay."
As a local law enforcement agency, the Nogales PD defers to Border Patrol agents to perform the primary security duties at checkpoints such as vehicle searches and ID checks.
Yet, the department has secured manpower funding via Operation StoneGarden, a Department of Homeland Security program with the stated goal of improving coordination among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to secure the border and cut down on human smuggling.
StoneGarden allows Nogales officers to work border checkpoints alongside U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and enables overtime pay for fence-line patrols.
On a recent shift, Officer Mario Lopez checked bags and IDs of pedestrians leaving the U.S. for Mexico at one of two entry points in town. State-issued IDs or passports are permitted. Travelers who present a Mexican matricula consular (voter credential) are turned away.
Lopez supports S.B. 1070, Arizona's tough immigration law that's been struck down by a federal judge and has come under fire by the Obama administration. He favors the law because he believes it may spur further federal support for law enforcement.
"It's a decent law," Lopez says. "However, I do have some reservations that it's just adding to our workload. Hopefully, this will make President Obama take some action."
The officer also commented on the public outcry to the law that may be an overreaction.
"We don't just walk up and start nabbing people," Lopez adds. "We have to establish the fact that the person is illegal."
Nearby, fellow Nogales officer Robert Fierros checks outbound vehicles passing through the checkpoint to mostly look for large quantities of cash, guns, ammunition, stolen vehicles, felons, and other wanted persons. On federal property, no probable cause is needed; Fierros can stop any vehicle for any reason.
Earlier in the year, Fierros stopped a vehicle with a 20-year-old male driver and a 16-year-old female passenger. The male was a wanted felon who had abducted the teen and was attempting to smuggle her to Mexico for sex slavery.
The girl looked frightened and the man's ID contained a fake address in Arizona. And their boyfriend-girlfriend story quickly fell apart under further questioning.
"StoneGarden allows municipal officers to network with federal officers," Fierros says. "You're joining powers, and it really does show results."