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New Tucson Sector BP chief wants to shift agents to border, add more technology

After six weeks on the job, the new chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector said he wants to shift agents closer to the border, and work closely with Mexican officials to keep illegal traffic, including drugs and people, from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rudolfo Karisch took over the post on August 20, after serving as chief of the Del Rio Sector, and the acting commissioner of the Office of Professional Responsibility for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in a 31-year career with the U.S. Border Patrol.

On Wednesday, Karisch met with reporters at the Tucson Sector's headquarters and answered questions for about 30 minutes on his priorities for the sector.

Agents in the Tucson Sector have already made great strides in apprehensions since their height in the early 2000's, but "we've still got to do better" to "ensure the integrity of our borders," Karisch said.

'If you look at the rugged terrain that our people have to operate, the access—getting up in these mountain tops—that’s probably the most significant challenge," Karisch said.

About 19 percent of the sector's border remains inaccessible to vehicles, he said, and he hoped to get "force multipliers" to make up that difference.

"I often say this is something that's painful for us to hear: we have the appetite," he said. "We want to stop the drug flow, we've got to reduce that appetite for drugs. But until then, we'll throw every available piece of technology" to "make sure that we're intercepting that contraband," Karisch said.

In recent years, both apprehensions and drug seizures have declined in the Tucson Sector, a trend that Karisch hopes continues as he leads the sector. "Well I'm hoping that that trend continues—otherwise you guys will tell me that I'm doing a bad job here," he said.

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"But at the end of the day I want to continue in that direction," he said. "Agents here in Tucson have really done a tremendous job in changing that, but we've also added a lot of resources here, including technology and personnel, that have complimented the work we're doing. Now we've better look at how we can sustain that and make sure that traffic does not come back to Tucson [Sector]."

To make this happen, Karisch said that he was looking at adding more technology along the border, continuing the use of forward operating bases, and would consider using smaller drones, already being tested as part of a pilot program in the sector.

"We have to keep our agents closer to the border to maximize our efforts," he said, adding that he had "strong relationships" with the government of Mexico, and was working with officials to prevent people and contraband from "ever reaching our borders."

"We can't simply look at this as a Border Patrol problem, or an immigration problem, but as a national security problem," he said.

Later, he added, "They want the same thing we want on that border, safety on that border."

Among the challenges that Karisch faces is a slow attrition of agents in the Tucson Sector.

While the agency recently celebrated the hiring of 44 new agents for the sector, the agency has shed nearly 10 percent of the workforce in the sector since 2011, losing more than 400 agents from a peak of 4,239.

In February, President Donald Trump signed an executive order demanding that U.S. Customs and Border Protection hire an additional 5,000 agents. That order also included another 10,000 agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Karisch said that recruitment may require new incentives to get agents to work in remote areas, including the Ajo Station, adding that the agency should consider how "improve the incentives" that we offer, and improve "quality of life" for agents and their families in remote areas.

"There are a lot of models we can look at — I think the military does this on a regular basis — so we've got to be better at this. We might spend a lot of money to train someone and we can't lose them to another organization," he said.

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The declining number of agents has meant that the sector has "gaps in coverage" because agents with Border Search Trauma and Rescue, or BORSTAR, were deployed to help rescue people following a trio of hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

He said he would turn down more agents, or vehicles, but that without the funding attached to hire the 5,000 agents, he'll "wait and see what happens."

Karisch also needs to deal with a series of lawsuits and legal challenges regarding the treatment of detained immigrants in the Tucson Sector.

Border Patrol officials must follow the terms of a preliminary injunction, and provide clean bedding and showers for detainees in custody for more than 12 hours after a judge rejected a motion asking him to reconsider his orders.

In January, U.S. District Judge David C. Bury ordered the agency to provide provide bedding materials, including a mat and a mylar survival blanket, for all detainees held more than 12 hours, along with access to showers or other means to wash themselves.

The decision came as part part of a class-action lawsuit filed last year against U.S. Border Patrol, in which advocates claimed that detained immigrants are regularly held for more than 24 hours in dirty, cold and overcrowded cells, where they experience sleep deprivation and other problems, potentially violating the agency's own standards.

Karisch said that the agency was complying with the order, and was offering sleeping mats for detainees, however, he added that the sector's stations are not set up to hold people for long.

"I think the most important point that I need to make on that, is that our stations are not detention facilities," he said. "Our stations are processing areas until we can actually transfer custody."

Karisch added that there are avenues for people to issue complaints about their treatment, and outlined the two internal watchdog agencies within Homeland Security that are charged with investigating problems, including OPR where Karisch was once stationed.

"Simply because somebody has been taken into custody by us does not mean that we should mistreat them," he said.

He also added that he was working with community members and organizations, including members of the Tohono O'odham Nation, which has a 70-mile border with Mexico. "I think they want the same thing, which is tranquility along the border." He said that he was training agents on cultural awareness. "That's someone's backyard, we have to respect that."

He also said that he had met with the Mexican consul and Central American officials, including a recent meeting with officials from Costa Rica.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Rodolfo Karisch, the new chief of the Tucson Sector, speaking with reporters at the agency's station in Tucson.