Do Border Signs Admit the United States Has Lost Control of Border Territory?
On January 13 2019, Facebook user Steve Raabe shared a photograph purportedly showing a sign at the U.S.-Mexico border, along with the following status update:
I live on the border with Mexico. As a matter of fact, I live right on the edge. I was raised in Nevada and came to Arizona in 2003 to live. I have a house in both states, but have owned a business in Yuma since 2008 and spend the vast majority of my time in Yuma.
There is absolutely nothing between the the subdivision I live in and the Mexican border, except for Mesquite, Creosote Bush and cactus.
I have lived here before we secured the 126 mile Yuma Sector with barriers and fencing in 2008 and after. The capture of illegals dropped from 136,000 to less than 9000 in one year, in this sector alone. The car pursuits stopped, the chases stopped, shootings decreased, drug smuggling was significantly reduced, crime rates in our county dropped, the number of immigrants dying in the desert stopped. The safety and lives of those of us who live here have improved greatly.
Imagine wanting to spend a fun day in the mountains around your home and passing one of these signs which are everywhere and are posted by the Government of the United States. Your out on your four wheeler and a Yuma county deputy on an ATV stops you to recommend that you not be in these mountains unless you are armed and warns you to be careful.
Now you people, who live miles away from these dangers, can all act like experts on border security and listen to whatever bullshit the particular politician you like is spewing, but the truth is we live in a very dangerous area and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Americans have been promised a secure border from both political parties for four decades and very little has been done.
I don’t care if Peter Pan, Tinker-bell, or Bozo the Effing Clown is supporting building a wall, we need it. You wall experts who live nowhere close to the Mexican border need to get your heads out of your rear ends and get a clue!
Feel free to share! This has to stop!
The attached photograph showed a sign lacking any connection to a federal or local agency, which said:
Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area
Do not travel alone
Avoid encounters with suspicious groups
Avoid traveling at night
Dial 911 to report illegal activity
According to the post, the signs were placed by the United States government at the border. In addition to that claim, the user claimed that after a border wall was put up in Yuma, the number of immigrants taken into custody dropped from 136,000 to under 9,000. Drops were measured in crimes of various descriptions, and fewer immigrants died trekking through border territories with harsh conditions.
No citations were provided for any of the claims. However, signs like the one shown in this post have appeared before, although not during 2019. In October 2010, the Arizona Daily Star reported that the Bureau of Land Management replaced the version of the signs seen in the photograph after they became a game of “political football”:
Warning signs on public land northwest of Tucson alerting visitors to border smugglers and armed criminals have been replaced by the Bureau of Land Management with toned-down notices.
In June , the BLM put up 12 signs on the Sonoran Desert National Monument warning visitors that the area was an active human and drug smuggling and that visitors may encounter “armed criminals and smuggling vehicles.”
The intent was to inform visitors about the severity of the smuggling activity in the area, including a shooting involving a Pinal County sheriff’s deputy and the discovery of two bodies found slain, said BLM state spokesman Dennis Godfrey. The signs did not mean BLM had lost control of the lands, he said.
A January 2011 Arizona Daily Star article further examined the placement of the signs and subsequent barriers, explaining that a primary concern for the agency was damage done to federal and tribal lands:
BLM officials put up the barrier to redirect traffic around the federally protected Table Top Wilderness Area, where cars are prohibited. They know it won’t stop drugs from reaching cities across the United States, but they couldn’t sit back and watch the beautiful landscape get trampled.
The problem isn’t unique to the Table Top Wilderness. From Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southwestern Arizona to Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson to the multiple patches of Coronado National Forest across Arizona’s border, land managers grapple with a multitude of issues related to being the busiest stretch of border for illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Including the Tohono O’odham Nation, nearly 86 percent of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands are federal or tribal lands.
Dealing with border issues is nothing new – Arizona has been the route of choice for a decade. But the national attention about how federal public-land managers deal with the cross-border traffic and work with federal law enforcement agencies has amplified in the past year with two high-profile killings in which suspects may have passed through federal lands.
BLM officials put up signs south of I-8 in the Table Top Wilderness Area warning visitors that the area was an active human- and drug-smuggling corridor and that they may encounter “armed criminals and smuggling vehicles.” The signs became political fodder in the 2010 election and became a symbol to some that the United States had ceded territory to smugglers.
When BLM officials took them down and replaced them in October  with toned-down notices, they were criticized for trying to make it seem that the problem had gone away. The irony – similar signs have been up for years across Southern Arizona.
The agency is considering putting up more vehicle barriers in Ironwood Forest Monument just northwest of Tucson. There are already vehicle barriers or fences up along the international border in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and the Coronado National Forest.
The January 2011 article noted that unsanctioned border crossings had decreased in frequency, citing economic conditions (not signs or enforcement) as the primary reason. Moreover, BLM agents cited litter and damage to land as a major factor in efforts to put up barriers:
Though illegal crossings have dipped along with the economy in recent years, federal lands in Arizona continue to be high-risk areas for illegal immigration and drug smuggling, says a November report from the Government Accountability Office.
The number of apprehensions by the Border Patrol on federal lands has not kept up with the number of estimated illegal entries there, the report found. Border Patrol agents made more than 91,000 apprehensions on federal lands in the Tucson Sector in fiscal 2009, but the agency estimated there were nearly three times as many illegal entries on these lands, the report said.
The estimated 2,000 tons of trash left behind by smugglers and illegal immigrants has harmed the fragile Sonoran Desert, landing Buenos Aires, Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta on lists of most imperiled federal lands at different points this decade.
There is even a website devoted to the trash (www.azbordertrash.gov). The site, run by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, is designed to coordinate cleanups and track results.
Finally, the reporting noted that disinformation and misinformation proliferated around the signs and the Bureau of Land Management’s involvement in border matters. Citing an erroneous press release for some of the attention, the paper reported:
While the strain of dealing with illegal cross-border activity is nothing new, the pressure on border land managers has escalated in the last year, led by a Republican lawmaker from Utah.
A month after Robert Krentz was killed on his Cochise County ranch, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop introduced a bill that would give Border Patrol agents total access to public lands, where they now must adhere to some restrictions. He justified the legislation based on authorities’ belief that the person who killed Krentz fled into Mexico through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, 17 miles east of Douglas.
Bishop was the ranking member of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. He was recently named chairman.
In June, Bishop’s office sent a press release saying the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge had just days earlier announced the closure of 3,500 acres to the public due to dangers posed by Mexican drug smugglers [in 2010]. The press release missed a key fact: This section of the Buenos Aires Refuge has been closed since October 2006.
The erroneous report prompted several national media outlets to report a 4-year-old story as if it were new. The office of Buenos Aires refuge manager Sally Gall was flooded with inquiries, forcing the refuge to issue a press release to clarify things. The increased pressure from Bishop and others and the spreading of inaccuracies has given border public lands in Arizona a bad image, Gall said.
“Yes, there probably is increased drug traffic and the drug issue is definitely a concern, but I just think it’s created a lot more fear in people than what was needed,” Gall said. “It portrayed this area as really dangerous and that people should fear coming here.”
In the original January 2019 Facebook post, the poster said that unsanctioned border crossings dropped after a border wall was put up in 2008 and 2009. But in October 2018, the Arizona Sheriff’s Association published a widely-shared video and claimed otherwise:
Agents apprehended an additional 112 illegal aliens throughout the rest of the day for a total of 220, with a majority of them being Guatemalan nationals traveling in family units. All individuals were processed for immigration proceeding.
“Coordinated smuggling of large numbers of Central Americans is taking place daily here in Yuma Sector,” said Yuma Sector Chief Patrol Agent Anthony Porvaznik. “They show flagrant disregard for the laws of our country and are exploiting our need for improved border wall infrastructure.”
Yuma Sector’s apprehensions of individuals from other than Mexico is up more than 200% this fiscal year compared to the year-to-date numbers in Fiscal Year 2018.
In December 2018, the New York Times fact-checked claims made by United States President Donald Trump about the efficacy of various walls and barriers on or near the border. That piece quoted a statement Trump made during a meeting with legislators:
A lot of the wall is built. It’s been very effective. I asked for a couple of notes on that. If you look at San Diego, illegal traffic dropped 92 percent once the wall was up. El Paso, illegal traffic dropped 72 percent, then ultimately 95 percent once the wall was up. In Tucson, Arizona, illegal traffic dropped 92 percent. Yuma, it dropped illegal traffic 95 to 96 percent.
The paper reported:
This is misleading.
Spending bills for the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years included funding for the Department of Homeland Security to replace old barriers with new barriers. These projects are not the same thing as Mr. Trump’s promised 1,000-mile concrete border wall, and many — including most in the sectors Mr. Trump listed — are not yet completed.
It is therefore impossible for Mr. Trump to claim that the wall has already been highly effective in stemming illegal border crossings.
In San Diego, construction began in June to replace 14 miles of barrier. Carlos Diaz, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, estimated that the project was on schedule for completion by May. In El Paso, the agency began a four-mile replacement project in late September, and it will be completed in late April, according to Mr. Diaz. And within the Yuma and Tucson sectors, construction for a 32-mile replacement project will begin in April .
The Facebook post that made several false claims about the border region also included a widely-shared and misleading image of a sign that was common in border wilderness areas in 2010, nearly a decade before any 2019 discussions about the international border. The sign sparked wide controversy; BLM then replaced the notices after the signs became politically controversial. BLM maintained that the presence of the signs was being used to falsely suggest areas of wilderness in border states was “lawless.” BLM also cited land protection as a primary aim, not border enforcement. The post also cited baseless numbers about massive drops in unsanctioned border crossings not supported by any facts.