TUCSON – Officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection are teaming up with U.S. Border Patrol agents to jointly man both inland checkpoints and border crossings in Arizona that once were the exclusive domain of the respective agencies. The joint deployment program is believed to be the first time the two groups have worked together in Arizona, spokesman for both agencies said. Customs officers are charged with ferreting out contraband and illegal immigrants at the nation's border crossings, while Border Patrol agents' duty is to find illegal immigrants in inland and border areas away from official entry crossings.
Both agencies fall under the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection arm, but they normally operate separately.
Now, Customs officers man an Interstate 19 checkpoint south of Tucson normally staffed only by Border Patrol agents, adding their expertise in finding contraband to an inspection station primarily meant to find illegal immigrants.
In return, Border Patrol agents are spending shifts alongside officers at the ports, which makes for speedier inspections, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Brian Levin.
The goal is to slow illegal immigration and drug smuggling in the Southwest border's busiest corridor. Since Oct. 1, the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector accounted for 51 percent of all marijuana seized and 46 percent of all apprehensions made on the Southern border. It's been the busiest sector for apprehensions since 1998 and for marijuana seizures since 2003, Border Patrol numbers show.
There are glitches: the Customs and Border Protection officers at the I-19 checkpoint aren't allowed to conduct primary questioning because of legal regulations, Levin said. Their primary mission is helping to identify fraudulent documents being used by people who don't have permission to be in the country.
Their presence frees agents to fan out in the surrounding country looking for migrants making their way north.
The port officers' experience identifying hidden vehicle compartments filled with drugs has also proved helpful, said Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels. In two examples, officers have helped agents find methamphetamine in the gas tank of a motorcycle and cocaine in a concealed compartment in the floor of an SUV, Levin said.
The presence of the Customs officers keeps smugglers on their toes, Daniels and Levin say.
”The taxpayers benefit because there is more of a presence,'' Daniels said. ”That presence works as a deterrent.''
The agents and officers also get better at their jobs because they learn the tricks of their counterparts' trade.
”It definitely helps them out,'' said Edith Serrano, a Customs spokeswoman in Nogales. ”When they get a tractor-trailer, they remember they were looking for this, this and this'' at the entry ports.
Using that training, Border Patrol agents found two loads of marijuana in trucks carrying vegetables in mid-March.