YUMA, Ariz. — A lonely sign emerges in the Sonoran Desert on a sandy tract of nowhere.
Today, the Arizona range’s remote terrain — part of which abuts Mexico — is in the crosshairs of not only the pilots who train here. It also has landed in the middle of one of the fiercest battles in American politics: the fight over President Trump’s effort to build a wall across the nation’s 1,954-mile southern border.
Citing concerns about drug smuggling and migrants accidentally being bombed, the Trump administration last year began to plan a 31-mile barrier along the stretch of the bombing range that flanks the border with Mexico. Under the plans, the Pentagon would erect a steel-bollard wall some 150 feet behind an existing border fence for an estimated $450 million.
“This is a safety consideration,” then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at a congressional hearing in April. “I don’t care who they are, they are human beings, and I don’t want them wandering into a bombing range that is active.”
But local officials say they haven’t heard of any instance in which a migrant has been killed by a bombing or unexploded ordnance on the range. Fewer people are crossing the territory than in previous years, and the proposed wall would leave open many routes by which migrants could still enter the range.
The result is a sense among critics that the project is less about guaranteeing security at a military installation and more about finding reasons to tap Pentagon funds for a slice of Trump’s border wall.
The Pentagon defends the action as necessary to protect the range from illegal activity in a known drug-smuggling corridor. “More importantly,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said in a statement, the barrier would “address increasing human life and safety concerns by deterring unlawful entry onto an active bombing range.”
Migrant rights activists, however, say a new wall will fail to stop people, who will simply cross in other ways, possibly further endangering themselves. Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, have called the project an imprudent use of taxpayer money that would divert resources from military priorities.
“The Barry Goldwater Range already has a border barrier,” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the area’s congressman, said in a statement. He said, “Any attempts by the Department of Defense to construct further barriers to build Trump’s vanity wall are misguided and unnecessary.”
Dotted with saguaro cactuses and creosote bushes, the swath of Arizona desert that is home to the Barry M. Goldwater Range is a tableau of beauty and harsh desolation. For centuries, missionaries, conquistadors, indigenous peoples and others walked the sands of El Camino del Diablo, or the Devil’s Highway, a passage known for inhospitable conditions, which cuts through the range.
An aid group in January recovered what the Pima County medical examiner determined were five sets of human skeletal remains, most likely migrants who died from exposure or lack of water while crossing the area. It’s a fairly common occurrence in desert borderlands where temperatures can hover well over 100 degrees in the summer and grow frigid on winter nights.
But Charles Buchanan, a retired fighter pilot and director of the Air Force’s range office, said he didn’t know of any incident “where someone has died as a result of our action, military action.”
“I’m not going to say it could never happen,” he added. “It certainly could. It’s unlikely.”
His ostrich cowboy boots clicking on the metal stairs, Buchanan climbed to the top of one of the range’s watchtowers on a recent day just before sunset and looked out over two parachute bombing targets and a line of tires that shows pilots when to fire.
Most of the range, which is operated by the Air Force in the east and the Marine Corps in the west, is unused land, reducing the likelihood that someone will cross a target. Only 6 percent of the roughly 1 million acres on the Air Force side are affected by current military operations, and some 0.6 percent fall in an impact area, or within 500 feet of a bombing target, Buchanan said.
Despite the emptiness, migrants sometimes have found their way to bombing targets. In April 2017, for example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported responding to a 911 call from a Mexican national in distress, only to find him “standing on a bombing target” after authorities tracked his GPS coordinates. Such occurrences are relatively uncommon, according to Buchanan.
'It's very infrequent'
Statistics indicate that the range is seeing decreasing numbers of known intrusions, though the data doesn’t capture those who cross the territory undetected.
The U.S. military tracked six “events” in which people entered the eastern side of the range illegally during the 2018 fiscal year, the lowest number in at least 15 years and a reduction from 40 instances a decade prior.
“It used to happen — and we’re talking 10 years ago — far more frequently,” Buchanan said. “Nowadays, it’s very infrequent.”
In the early 2000s, Buchanan said, “there was a time when I could take you out there and there was a well-beaten path” for migrants through the range.
The improvement is partly the result of a shift in migration dynamics. The number of people apprehended for crossing into the United States illegally has declined generally over the past two decades.
Years ago, border agents say, they saw primarily Mexican migrants who were looking to evade detection crossing into the United States. Now, more than three-quarters of the migrants who come over the border in the area’s Yuma sector are family units or unaccompanied children, most of them fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. According to Border Patrol agents, they tend to cross in areas visible to authorities to give themselves up and claim asylum.
“You don’t want to be out in the desert where there is a possibility of you not being found,” Yuma sector Border Patrol agent Justin Kallinger said.
Kallinger is a veteran of the force, a longtime patroller of the bombing range and a supporter of what he calls a “wall system” — a combination of technology, manpower and infrastructure.
On a recent day, the dust was swirling across the windshield as Kallinger and fellow agent Jose Garibay cruised alongside a brown, steel border wall in their Chevrolet Suburban. Out the window, yellow arrows indicated the places along the wall where 376 migrants from Central America crossed into the United States by burrowing under it in January. The solid metal turned soon into see-through mesh, revealing a line of trucks across the border on Mexico’s Highway 2. The agents then arrived at the spot where the Pentagon wants to add the wall along the range.
“We don’t see very many people crossing here,” Kallinger said.
The Pentagon effort to build the new 30-foot-high wall is still in the exploratory phase. The Navy has allocated $7.5 million for advanced planning and environmental surveys that are underway. The military also wants to build vehicle and pedestrian gates and a single-lane patrol road at the site, according to Davis, the Pentagon spokesman. As it stands, the project would skip over the six-mile stretch where craggy mountains form the border with the range.
The project has yet to be funded. The Trump administration could seek to pay for it out of $2.5 billion in counter-drug money the president intends to take for the wall from the Pentagon budget, using a law that permits construction of fences, roads and lighting in designated drug-smuggling corridors. Or, now that Trump has declared a national emergency, he could set his sights on other parts of the wall, unburdened by the need to find a military link to draw Pentagon funds.
It’s far from clear that the additional wall would prevent migrants from crossing onto the bombing range. There are few substantial barriers preventing people from accessing the range in places that aren’t along the Mexican border, making the territory permeable from many sides.
Border agents say the migrants who end up inside the bombing range usually don’t cross at the place where the Pentagon is planning to build the new wall. Rather, they say, migrants tend to access it through the adjacent Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which are separated from Mexico only by easily surmounted vehicle barriers.
There is no barrier between the parks and the range, according to Buchanan, in part because officials have determined there isn’t an overwhelming need, but also because an endangered species known as the Sonoran pronghorn calls the area home and could be disturbed by a fence dividing its habitat.
Border agents say the migrants who do end up on the range are traversing difficult terrain because they want to evade authorities, often for the purposes of drug smuggling.
“They’re the ones who come in at night,” Kallinger said. “They’ll wear foam or carpet on their feet to try to disguise their footprints. They’ll hike through treacherous terrain, and they’ll usually end up on those Air Force ranges.”
Migrant rights activists say there’s no way of knowing the true makeup of the people who are crossing in that particular area, and they note that some are forced to carry drugs as part of the price of being smuggled across the border by organized groups. Activists’ efforts to leave water in the area have been met with opposition from authorities, including most recently when a group of women were convicted of misdemeanor crimes for leaving water on the wildlife refuge.
The level of drug activity on the range is difficult to discern. There are few if any drug-trafficking statistics for the range itself. Anecdotally, though, Border Patrol agents note that people are routinely apprehended in and around the military installation for smuggling drugs.
CBP seizes most of the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl that enters the United States at ports of entry, according to statistics. The exception is marijuana, which is more often smuggled in areas between ports of entry such as the range. Unlike the other drugs, it is decreasing in terms of the amount seized, in part due to the legalization of marijuana in many U.S. states.
Nonetheless, authorities still apprehend people smuggling marijuana in and around the range. In February 2017, for example, Border Patrol agents arrested two drug smugglers there with more than 500 pounds of marijuana worth more than $260,000, according to CBP.
Whether fortified barriers would decrease drug smuggling is a point of contention. The Department of Homeland Security argues that walls prove effective in stopping drugs, in part by slowing those seeking to cross the border, but a recent study by the libertarian think tank Cato Institute argued the opposite, echoing calls to focus on improving ports of entry and legalizing marijuana nationally to decrease smuggling incentives.
Migrant rights activists believe barriers don’t function as a deterrent. “We are firm in the belief that walls do not work in the sense of preventing folks from coming here,” said Stephanie Zamora, advocacy director for the Tucson-based Colibri Center for Human Rights.
At the bombing range, border agents often patrol in the evening while the ranges are “cold.” They use what are known as “drags” — a plow-like device they hook to the back of their trucks — to comb the sand, so they can track the footprints of anyone entering the territory.
On rare occasions, if the range is “hot” and they need to enter, Border Patrol agents will call range officials, whom they refer to as “snake eyes,” and ask whether operations can be suspended.
It doesn’t happen often. The U.S. Air Force restricted 10 hours of flying time on its side of the range in the 2018 fiscal year, down from 202 hours a decade prior. The number of sorties affected dropped to 14 from 309 over the same period. No sorties were canceled either year.
Despite the improvement, Buchanan says migration trends could change. “The traffic has dropped to really where it is not an impact right now,” he says. “Could something happen — whatever that dynamic is — that creates an influx? Yes.”
For that reason, he says, he isn’t opposed to an additional wall. He shrugged. “It’s not going to hurt.”