In 2022, CBP reported 122,619 encounters
It’s unlikely the hikers knew they were being watched. They had tried to blend in: all 11 were wearing camouflage with the intention of vanishing into the desert scrub. They were on a remote mountain trail on the outskirts of Ajo, Arizona, a former mining town of about 3,000 people just a few dozen miles north of the Mexican border. It was a warm November morning, still early enough in the day that the sun must have felt good on their skin — the air is cold up in the mountains, colder still in the dry desert winter, though the heat always finds you eventually. The sky was bright and endless, punctuated by just a few clouds. But even if the migrants looked closely, there’s no way they could have noticed the MQ-9 Predator B drone stalking them from 20,000 feet above.
Nearly 150 miles away at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, the migrants were on display. Two Customs and Border Protection agents tracked the group from a cramped shipping container on base that was being used as a temporary ground control station. Each agent sat before five monitors: the pilot flew the drone while the camera operator focused on tracking the group’s movements. The 11 migrants appeared as small figures on a pair of screens, bright white smudges moving across a gray background. Their clothing may have helped them blend in with the cholla cacti and spiky ocotillo plants of the Sonoran Desert, but it couldn’t fool the Predator’s infrared camera. They had been betrayed by their own body heat.
The migrants must have noticed the helicopter first: an EC-120 Colibrí, Spanish for “hummingbird.” Then came a pair of Border Patrol agents on foot. “On your tail, there’s another group of two, probably about 50 yards behind you,” the camera operator in Tucson told one of the ground agents by radio.
Then he turned to me and explained what we were looking at. “That’s the agent,” he said, pointing at a vaguely person-shaped silhouette on one of the screens. He had to raise his voice so I could hear him over the endless hum of the servers that took up half the 16-by-20-foot room. “He just apprehended that guy, and that’s the group right there.” We watched as one member of the group tried to wrestle the Border Patrol agent. The others walked toward him, ready to give up.
From the shipping container, it was impossible to know anything about the group aside from what was visible on-screen. They could have been from Guatemala or El Salvador or Mexico or anywhere else. They could have been asylum seekers or drug runners or neither. Maybe it was their first time trekking through the desert; maybe it was their fifth. Maybe they were headed for Phoenix or Boston or for one of those tiny towns that have become Central American enclaves through the availability of agricultural jobs and word of mouth. These details were irrelevant to the CBP drone operators watching the migrants from Tucson, the Border Patrol agents tracking them through the mountains, and the crew following along in the helicopter. Their job was to find and apprehend anyone crossing the border illegally, no matter who they were.
The agents on the ground would get more details: names, ages, nationalities. After that, the specifics would matter a little. If the hikers were carrying drugs, they’d be prosecuted. If they had been deported before, they could be charged with illegal reentry. But if this was their first time — if they were crossing the border for work or to reunite with family on the other side or because they were in danger in their country — they’d likely be sent back to Mexico, regardless of where they had come from. There would be no hearing before an immigration judge, no chance to plead their case. And if the migrants were really desperate, they might try to cross again. Maybe they’d choose a different route. If they were with a smuggler, he’d know which trails to take to avoid the network of hidden cameras and underground sensors that CBP has scattered throughout the desert — but that route would likely be more remote and more treacherous than the one they were already on. All the surveillance technology in the world won’t stop people from trying to cross the border; it’s an obstacle, not, as Customs and Border Protection would have you believe, a deterrent.
Every unauthorized crossing is a justification for more drones in the air and boots on the ground, but none of that will stop people from coming. It just means more migrants are dying.