The California Report Talks 'Zero Tolerance' with San Diego's Chief Patrol Agent

2 min
Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott at the San Diego-Tijuana border.  (Ariana Drehsler/KQED)

The California Report walked and drove along part of the San Diego-Tijuana border recently with Rodney Scott, chief patrol agent for the San Diego sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It’s his job to oversee about 2,400 agents and 60 linear miles of border with Mexico, as well as the entire California coast. It’s a tall order for a self-described “Indiana farm kid” who moved to Nogales, Arizona, when he was 16.

We asked Scott what has changed under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy. Have there been fewer arrests? And what has it been like to operate under the increased scrutiny of media and immigration advocates as the Trump administration has rolled out its tougher immigration policy?

The California Report's Polly Stryker interviewing Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott along the San Diego - Tijuana border. (KQED/Drehsler)
The California Report's Polly Stryker interviewing Chief Patrol Agent Rodney Scott along the San Diego-Tijuana border. (Ariana Drehsler/KQED)

Scott says he wants to “clear [things] up a little bit.” He says zero tolerance wasn’t really that much of a change in policy when it comes to consequences for a criminal action.

"A big reason we believe that we've had the massive illegal immigration problem we've had over the years is we've never had a consequence for that crime in a consistent manner. Anywhere we've consistently had a prosecution associated with a criminal action, that criminal action has slowed down," he says.

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"So, zero tolerance just spread that proven concept across the entire Southwest border and said we're now going to start prosecuting everybody instead of a select few. That was the change. No laws changed," says Scott.

And arrests? They are up. Border Patrol Agent and Public Affairs Officer Eduardo Olmos provided these numbers for the fiscal year to date in the San Diego sector:

  • There have been 28,516 arrests to date in fiscal year 2018, averaging 103.69 arrests per day.
  • This is 42.98 percent higher than fiscal year 2017, when there were 19,944 arrests, averaging 72.52 arrests per day.
A camera tower southeast of Spooner's Mesa, San Diego-Tijuana border. (Ariana Dreshler/KQED)

Scott says the increased media attention to the separation of families due to zero tolerance has "created some challenges to prosecuting every single person that crosses. We're moving in that direction. But here in San Diego, and across the country, we're still kind of working through the zero tolerance [policy]. Three months seems like a long time, but when you're trying to kind of change the court system, if you will, and then start prosecuting crimes at a pretty high rate that you have not in the past, that's a big machine to move.

"So, we're prosecuting significantly more here in San Diego than we were before, but we're not close to 100 percent yet," he says. The main thing that's changed, says Scott, is the paperwork. There's more of it.

In spite of reports that Customs and Border Patrol agents turn away asylum-seekers — including at least one instance where The California Report witnessed a CBP agent telling an asylum-seeker to go away, saying they weren’t doing asylum cases anymore — Scott says agents do not turn away asylum-seekers and process all applicants.

“We take every allegation very, very seriously,” he says. “I have not seen any proven allegations on that for Border Patrol agents.”

Patchwork of razor wire on the secondary fence south-east of Spooner's Mesa at the San Diego - Tijuana border. The secondary fence gets patched up quite often due to it being cut by people who are trying to go to the United States illegally. (KQED/Drehsler)
Patchwork of razor wire on the secondary fence southeast of Spooner's Mesa at the San Diego-Tijuana border. The secondary fence gets patched up quite often due to it being cut by people who are trying to go to the United States illegally. (Ariana Drehsler/KQED)

“If anybody crosses the border in between the ports of entry, we arrest them. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a United States citizen. It’s illegal to cross the border in between the ports of entry. Then they get taken to a Border Patrol station, and the process is fairly similar for us at that point," he says.

"Part of the questioning process for an illegal alien is, ‘Do you have credible fear?’ If they claim to have credible fear, we’re done. We don’t make any determination about ... is that fear valid? Is that fear not valid? You basically just check a box. And then the individual goes for a credible fear hearing with CIS (or the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).

"So, there’s no benefit for a Border Patrol agent to try to dissuade somebody from claiming credible fear. It doesn’t change his specific workload,” explains Scott.

Scott remembers when he started working as a Border Patrol agent in the Imperial Beach sector in the 1990s.

“This area was completely out of control. It was total chaos. I, as a young agent, was watching 10 people get away for every person I caught. We’d have 100 people on the ground, and another massive mob that you couldn’t even count would run by you, just out of arm’s reach. You don’t see that now. And it’s because the country made a decision to invest in border security, starting here in San Diego and El Paso, and we’ve systematically expanded it out.”

Back in mid-March, Scott briefed President Trump when he visited the border to look at wall prototypes. He says the president absolutely “has it right” when it comes to building new wall infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“When you install the border fence, it has about a 25-year life cycle. So that's actually a pretty inexpensive investment for a long period of time, whereas technology has a life cycle of about 18 months. So building a wall is clearly one of the best investments for the American people to secure the border."

A woman looks through the border fence from Friendship Park in Tijuana.
A woman looks through the border fence from Friendship Park in Tijuana. (Ariana Dreshler/KQED)

The California Report also attended mass in Calexico, a border town nearly two hours east of San Diego, on a recent Sunday. Afterward, we spoke with the priest, a Catholic from Mexicali. He talked about America as being a "land of plenty," that there's enough for everyone here.

What does Scott make of that? He says he subscribes to similar basic religious beliefs about helping travelers and migrants. "I believe we have a responsibility to help others. We have a responsibility to treat everybody humanely and fairly." But, he says, "the first deportation and the first borders were created in Genesis."

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