TUCSON - The U.S. Border Patrol has chosen a site on Interstate 19 just north of Arivaca Junction as the interim site of its first permanent checkpoint in southern Arizona.
The agency plans to open a facility 31 miles north of the border in as little as 6 months, spending $1.5 million to $2 million for the facility that will be used until a full permanent checkpoint is built in the area in three to five years, said John Fitzpatrick, assistant chief in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.
Agents would screen cars and trucks for illegal immigrants at the checkpoint.
The checkpoint would include a 110-by-120-foot canopy over the Interstate, Fitzpatrick said. The final site choice for the full facility hasn't been made, but the interim site is at the top of the list. A full checkpoint would likely cost at least $14 million and include inspection lanes to pull traffic off the main highway.
The Border Patrol is moving quickly to add permanent checkpoints in southern Arizona, which it was prohibited from opening by a congressional mandate championed by Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., that ended when he retired last year.
Kolbe argued that permanent checkpoints would serve little purpose because smugglers know where they are and can go around them.
Many residents in Tubac and Green Valley communities are vehemently opposed to the checkpoint, saying it would be ineffective and bad for business and property values.
Members of a community work group formed by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., are particularly irked that the agency didn't wait for their findings, due out within a month.
"When you talk to the Border Patrol, it sounds like their mind is made up," said Nan Walden, a member of the group. Walden and her husband, Richard, farm more than 4,000 acres of pecans and employ 240 workers.
Fitzpatrick said the agency plans to wait on the final location choice until the group's report comes out. But he said the agency believes the group was not formed to debate permanent checkpoints but to get their ideas on ways to make them most effective.
"The Border Patrol is in the business of border security," Fitzpatrick said. "We've been doing this for 83 years. That's our job. We're the experts on this."
The Tucson Sector is the only one on the Southwest border without permanent checkpoints.
"We absolutely need checkpoints to bring our level of enforcement up to at least the same level as the other sectors on the southern border," Fitzpatrick said.
Community members say the permanent checkpoint will be an inconvenience and will deter visitors and potential property owners. They are concerned about an increase in violence among smugglers as drug traffickers travel through outlying areas to get around the checkpoint.
"This community is fit to be tied," said Carol Cullen, executive director of the Tubac Chamber of Commerce. "We've got people who are talking about protesting."
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada questioned the need for the permanent inspection station and said the logic that the Tucson Sector needs one because it's the only sector without one is flawed
"Just because Arizona does not have it doesn't mean Arizona has to have it," Estrada said. "Maybe we are the smart one; maybe we're doing the right thing."
Ranchers Gus and Beverly Amado are among the vocal critics. Their cattle and horse ranch has been in the family for five generations and they say they're worried about the large building, lights and semitrailers that would be passing through.
"It changes the valley forever," said Beverly Amado. "It will never be the same. People in Congress, the Border Patrol, they come and go, but we're here forever."