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On The Front Lines Of 'Zero Tolerance'


Trump administration's been challenged in courtroom after courtroom in recent weeks on immigration. But along the border, it's still policy to criminally prosecute nearly everybody who crosses illegally. KQED's Julie Small recently spent time with a border patrol agent in San Diego.


JULIE SMALL, BYLINE: At 7:00 a.m., there's still fog cooling the road as agent Theron Francisco hikes to a series of 30-foot wall segments, prototypes for a more robust border wall designed to stop immigrants, smugglers and traffickers. One of those prototypes, right behind us, is concrete, three or four feet thick.

THERON FRANCISCO: That would take multiple hours to get through. And that would just buy us, you know, a lot more time to get here to respond, get more agents in place.

SMALL: Right now, the primary barrier between San Diego County and Mexico is a 45-mile-long fence made a Vietnam War-era metal landing sheets. There's also a secondary wall of wire mesh and concertina wire.


SMALL: We entered the restricted area between the two walls.

FRANCISCO: We call it the Border Infrastructure System, the BIS, or the enforcement zone.

SMALL: A new road between the two fences allows agents to speed to any point that's been breached. Francisco joined the border patrol eight years ago, inspired by his wife's grandfather, a retired agent.

FRANCISCO: Like, they always bragged about him and how good he was, like as far as sign cutting because that's a large portion of our job is sign cutting...

SMALL: Which is what?

FRANCISCO: ...Which is tracking people, tracking, usually, footprints or disturbances in the ground.

SMALL: Agents in the San Diego sector are responsible for 60 miles of the border. Much of the terrain is hot, rugged and mountainous. Francisco gets to put his tracking skills to use.

FRANCISCO: Apprehending your first group of illegal, you know, aliens - actually tracking them from the border for a couple hours and you finally make that apprehension - the first time, it was like nothing else I've ever felt.

SMALL: So far this year, border patrol apprehended 28,000 people in the San Diego region. That's a 10 percent increase from last year. Before a judge stopped the practice in June, border patrol separated thousands of children from parents who entered illegally. Francisco says he's never had to take a child away from a parent, but if he had to, he would.

FRANCISCO: You kind of have to understand that, where they're coming from, they're trying to better themselves, but it's our job to apprehend them. You know, you feel for them, but there there's a right way to enter and there's a wrong way. And if you enter the wrong way, then we've got to do our job.

SMALL: Under a court order, the government has reunified nearly 2,000 children with their parents. This week, the government submitted a plan to find parents who were already deported, leaving hundreds of children behind. For NPR News, I'm Julie Small in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie Small