Border Protection Chief, National Guard Arrive in Arizona

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New Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham (right) visits the Tucson Border Patrol

New Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham (right) visits the Tucson Border Patrol Station. Ted Robbins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ted Robbins, NPR

The new Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection makes his first official visit to the Arizona border. The former Secret Service chief arrived just as National Guard troops began arriving to fortify the work of CBP staff there.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

An official from Washington visiting the U.S./Mexican border is not exactly news these days, but it is when that official is Ralph Basham. Just a couple of weeks ago, he headed the Secret Service, an agency that makes a point of staying out of the spotlight. Now, he's in the thick of it as the new commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Here is Ralph Basham's reaction after examining the task of securing the nation's southern border firsthand.

Commissioner W. RALPH BASHAM (Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection): Actually, I have to admit. It is a bit overwhelming.

ROBBINS: But he says he's learned at least one lesson. You can hear about the border, you can see it on a map...

Commissioner BASHAM: But until you get up there and you look and you see what kind of terrain you're dealing with and the difficulties of it, you really don't have a true appreciation.

(Soundbite of a helicopter)

ROBBINS: So, the new commissioner of Customs and Border Protection took several helicopter rides over the rugged mountains and desert where people and drugs cross the border into Arizona. Then, after seeing the border, he felt it.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

ROBBINS: In triple-digit heat, in downtown Nogales, Arizona, with customs officers.

Mr. ROCK GAZA(ph) (Customs Officer, Nogales, Arizona): Rock Gaza.

Mr. JAVIER CORERE(ph) (Customs Officer, Nogales, Arizona): Javier Corere.

Mr. JOHN HOMANN(ph) (Customs Officer, Nogales, Arizona): John Homann.

Mr. MATTHEW ESCARCERY(ph) (Customs Officer, Nogales, Arizona): Matthew Escarcery.

ROBBINS: Officers who search cars, trucks, and in this case, dangerously hot trains where illegal crossers hide.

Unidentified Man: It's about a hundred now. It's probably another 15, 20 degrees on the train.

ROBBINS: How long can you survive in that sort of environment?

Unidentified Man: If they were to attempt to come in a closed car in the summertime, I mean, now you're talking - if they're in a closed car, you're talking probably 150, 160 degrees. And they're not going to make it all the way.

ROBBINS: Basham says he's proud that the Border Patrol has rescued 1,300 people from death in the Tucson sector alone.

Commissioner BASHAM: Even if half of them died, it would be a national disgrace.

ROBBINS: But he says there's not much he can do about the estimated 3,000 people who have died trying to cross. Critics blame border policy that has pushed people away from easy crossing places and methods into harsher conditions.

Commissioner BASHAM: There's no way that I can go back and change those facts. All I can do is move forward.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

ROBBINS: Down the road, cargo, not people, cross. We are inside a moving X-ray machine, a sort of giant version of the machine that examines your luggage at the airport.

Unidentified Man: What we have here - what we just finished scanning are honeydew melons...

Commissioner BASHAM: This is the last truck that went through?

Unidentified Man: Yes, sir.

ROBBINS: Two officers sit in front of screens and look inside trucks full of produce. Just ten days or so ago, a truck came through bound for the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. Inside, unknown to Ford, a load of marijuana.

Commissioner BASHAM: Not good at all. Now, what happens now...

Unidentified Man: That was about 3,000 pounds just last - what, a week and a half ago?

ROBBINS: There are three of these machines at Nogales. Together, they examine up to 240 trucks a day. But more than a thousand trucks come through the Port every day, so agents have to use their instincts to decide which to X-ray and which to let through.

It's a lesson for the commissioner on the resources needed to secure the border, while still encouraging trade. But after seeing the border, Ralph Basham says he's come to at least one conclusion about where not to put resources: toward a long wall.

Commissioner BASHAM: A 20-foot high wall across, you know, 2,000 miles of border - it's just not practical, and it's not enforceable.

ROBBINS: Walls need to be patrolled and maintained. Basham says that or a fence might work in some places. In others, it might be vehicle-barriers or drones in the sky or cameras. Customs and Border Protection is set to award a two billion dollar contract in September for a virtual fence - one that combines manpower with technology.

Commissioner BASHAM: I'm just saying, it can't be a wall as being the only solution to this problem.

ROBBINS: Commissioner Ralph Basham believes there is a solution. Otherwise, he says he would not have taken the job. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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