Reporting from San Luis, Ariz. -- The border fence ran right in front of Jeff Byerly's post, a straight line of steel that stretched beyond town and deep into the desert. As a U.S. Border Patrol agent on America's front line, Byerly's job was to stop anyone from scaling the barrier. Hours into his midnight shift, his stare was still fixed, but all was quiet.
He pounded energy drinks. He walked around his government vehicle. On the other side of the fence, the bars in the Mexican town of San Luis Rio Colorado closed, and only the sound of a passing car broke the silence. Byerly, 31, switched on his DVD player. Minutes later, a supervisor knocked on the window: The slapstick comedy "Johnny English" was on; Byerly was fast asleep.
Wild foot chases and dust-swirling car pursuits may be the adrenaline-pumping stuff of recruitment efforts, but agents on the U.S.-Mexico border these days have to deal with a more mundane occupational reality: the boredom of guarding a frontier where illegal crossings have dipped to record low levels.
Porous corridors along the 2,000-mile border do remain, mostly in the Tucson area, requiring constant vigilance. But beefed-up enforcement and the job-killing effects of the great recession have combined to reduce the flood of immigrants in many former hot spots to a trickle.
Apprehensions along the Southwest border overall dropped more than two-thirds from 2000 to 2010, from 1.6 million to 448,000, and almost every region has lonely posts where agents sit for hours staring at the barrier, watching the "fence rust" as some put it.
"When the traffic stops … of course it's going to be difficult for the agents to stay interested," said Supervisory Agent Ken Quillin, from the agency's Yuma, Ariz., sector. "I understand guys have a tough time staying awake.... they didn't join the border patrol to sit on an X," Quillin added, using the slang term for line watch duty.
To stay alert, agents are encouraged to walk around or take coffee breaks. Some agents play video games on their mobile phones or read books. There are agents known as "felony sleepers" who intend to slumber — bringing pillows or parking in remote areas — but most dozers are victims of monotony who nod off despite their best efforts to stay awake.
In the agency's San Diego sector, where apprehensions are at their lowest since the early 1970s, a supervisor last year was caught dozing in his parked vehicle by a television news crew. In the agency's busiest region near Tucson, agents have been left glassy-eyed amid a steep drop in activity. "When you go from 700,000 arrests in a sector to 100,000 … of course boredom is going to settle in," said Brandon Judd, president of the local border patrol agents' union, using approximate apprehension figures.
Perhaps no area has more action-starved agents than the Yuma sector, a vast expanse of desert and agricultural fields straddling California and Arizona that shares a 126-mile border with Mexico. In 2005, it was the border's most trampled region, a place where immigrant rushes, called banzai runs, sent hundreds of people into backyards and lettuce fields, and teams of drug smugglers shot across the Colorado River atop sandbag bridges.
Outnumbered agents resorted to spinning doughnuts in their vehicles, trying to kick up mini-sandstorms to disorient the hordes. Agents had to prioritize pursuits, focusing on the groups closing in on front lawns. "We were overrun," said agent Jeff Bourne, 34, but "your brain was always working. We were always doing something."
Then double and triple fencing went up. Stadium lighting was installed. Every arrested immigrant, instead of being returned to Mexico, was jailed. Outside town, workers laid steel barriers on previously wide-open borders to block drug-smuggling vehicles from driving through.
From 2005 to 2010, apprehensions of immigrants dropped 95%, from 138,460 to 7,116. Vehicle drive-throughs fell from 2,700 to 21 during the same period. Farmers are now able to plant crops in once-trampled fields. And residents don't find immigrants hiding under their cars anymore.
More than 900 agents, triple the number from 2005, are now stationed in what is one of the slowest sectors along the entire border. On a recent day, Bourne and his partner, Fernando Salazar, rode their patrol bikes through Friendship Park, where immigrants ran through Little League baseball games until the border fence was extended through left field.
They rode through tidy subdivisions where some homeowners provided shelter for people in garages and backyard bunkers until stadium lighting and triple-layer fencing all but sealed a smugglers' enclave in San Luis Rio Colorado.
Years ago in the same area, Bourne said, he helped catch 180 people in one day. Halfway into his recent shift, his crime-stopping efforts consisted of stopping a young man from dropping a soda can in the park. Still, bike patrol, the partners agreed, is a lot better than being stuck in a parked car waiting for action that never comes.
"Sitting in the same spot for eight hours looking at the same thing… it drains you." Salazar said.
Byerly was several hours into his midnight shift at the San Luis Port of Entry in March 2010 when his eyes started getting heavy. Watching the fence at the port was once considered crucial: People would jump over and disappear into nearby truck yards the moment an agent turned his head. But that night there were no immigrants waiting to dash across, no lookouts scouting the area, and no smugglers heaving rocks at his "war wagon" vehicle, its windows fortified with steel grillwork.
"I figured it would be exciting," said Byerly, a former construction worker from Pennsylvania who joined the agency in 2008. "I didn't think it would be as dead as it was."
Byerly finished the energy drinks and put the comedy into his DVD player. (Agents are prohibited from using personal electronic devices while on duty.) "I figured something funny would keep me awake, but I still fell asleep," said Byerly, who was fired because of the incident. Two other agents have also been disciplined for falling asleep on the job, said Derek Hernandez, president of the Yuma sector border patrol union.
Senior officials acknowledge that monotony is a concern. Agents are offered extra training and special details at tactical checkpoints and hot spots in other border regions, they say. Agents are also pulled off the line to do more interior enforcement, including pursuing illegal immigrants at bus stations as far away as Las Vegas.
Agent Rob Lowry, 28, fresh from mixed martial arts training, was on line duty on a recent day when he spotted farmworkers tending a field of lettuce. Illegal immigrants in the past would try to blend in and get trucked to other fields. But not on this morning.
Since joining the agency two years ago, Lowry figures he has arrested 100 immigrants, a total that agents in busier times could once accumulate in one day. Watching lettuce grow doesn't match Lowry's expectations for border duty, but the country still needs him, he said, if only as a deterrent.
"It might be tough on some agents who want to see action," said Lowry. "But as a U.S. citizen, it's comforting to know that [the Yuma-area border] is not crazy with people running around everywhere."