FACT CHECK: Sister of Border Patrol agent killed near Arizona border claims there are few agents

Posted at 7:26 PM, Aug 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-04 22:26:31-04

The Arizona-Mexico border became a brief focal point during Day One of the Republican National Convention.

Live from the border via video, Kelly Terry-Willis and Kent Terry, relatives of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was killed in a shootout with Mexican bandits near the border in December 2010, bashed President Barack Obama for leaving Border Patrol agents "thinly equipped."

"In Arizona, for example, there are only one and a half agents per every 10 square miles," Kelly Terry-Willis said on July 18. "This is unacceptable."

"In Arizona...there are only one and a half agents per every 10 square miles."

"Only one candidate is serious about border security, and that’s Donald Trump," Kent Terry said.

We decided to put Terry-Willis' claim through a PolitiFact truth-check. 

Linear vs. square miles

We did not hear back from Terry-Willis, but found the numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Arizona spans a total of 113,998 square miles, and there are 4,795 agents for the two sectors along the Arizona-Mexico border. We did the math using square miles and found that there is actually one Border Patrol agent per every 23.77 square miles in Arizona. That comes out to .4 agents per every 10 square miles.

So, Terry-Willis’ math is off. But Border Patrol notes that trying to use the state’s total square miles as a statistic is irrelevant since most agents are deployed far to the south, closer to the border. The number of agents per linear mile is much higher.

In fiscal year 2015, the Tucson sector had 3,991 Border Patrol agents covering 262 linear miles of the border. That’s just over 15 agents per mile. The Yuma sector had 804 Border Patrol agents covering 126 linear miles of the border. That’s just over six agents per mile.

Both sectors cover the more than 360 total miles along the Arizona-Mexico border, as well as the rest of the state.

Border Patrol also notes that agents are deployed to areas based on the threat of criminal activity.

In their 2012-16 strategic plan, they even outline a "risk-based approach" to patrolling the border.

Michael Lytle, a criminal justice professor and border security expert at the University of Texas at Brownsville, notes that there are some agents in more places along the border than others.

Technology, terrain and other barriers could be at play.

"Patterns of activity shape a section of the border, and may not necessitate the presence of an officer on that particular milemarker," Lytle said.

Our ruling

Terry-Willis said that in Arizona there are only one and a half (Border Patrol) agents per every 10 square miles.

Based on our calculations, she actually overestimates the number of Border Patrol agents compared to square miles. But that’s still misleading -- and leaves out important context.

Most Border Patrol agents survey areas closer to the Arizona-Mexico border, not the rest of the state. The number of agents per linear mile is much higher.

We rate the statement False.