By Tim Gaynor
SAN BERNARDINO VALLEY, Arizona (Reuters) - For U.S. Border Patrol agent Frank Dixon, getting to work on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift is simple: He drives out of Hedglen Forward Operating Base and is already in the heart of the cactus-studded wilderness he is tasked with securing.
Modeled on the remote fire bases used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, the 10-acre (four-hectare) fence-ringed facility in Arizona's high desert is the U.S. government's latest bid to plug the remaining gaps on the porous border with Mexico.
"We come in here, we get up our plan for the day and as soon as we drive out our gate, we are pretty much in our working area," Dixon says of the sprawling, air-conditioned compound where agents are assigned for a week at a time.
The site, inaugurated in May, is the newest of seven forward operating bases in Arizona and New Mexico that aim to establish a permanent police presence in some of the most difficult-to-reach areas on the porous, nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) border.
A landmark immigration overhaul passed by the Democratic-led U.S. Senate in June includes a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants currently living illegally in the United States and tighter borders, although it faces scant chance of passage in its current form in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The Senate bill also calls for increasing the number of forward operating bases and upgrading their facilities.
Bases like Hedglen that aim to plug gaps in the border are an example of the kinds of measures to increase border security demanded by Republicans in the House as part of the debate on immigration reform.
Each week, a dozen agents drive for an hour over dirt roads from sector headquarters in the border city of Douglas to the base where they spend the next seven days working to intercept smugglers and migrants trying to slip illegally over the border.
The Hedglen base, which is about 20 miles from the nearest town, consists of a spacious single-story building for offices and living space, as well as an adjacent stable and detention facility.
Agents assigned from sector headquarters in Douglas stock up on groceries for the week before heading out to the base, which is tucked discreetly behind a knoll a few minutes' drive north of the rusted border fence with Mexico.
There is bed space for 32 agents in rooms with a bunk bed and a desk. They also have a fully equipped kitchen, a laundry, a gym with a treadmill and StairMaster, as well as a large living room with satellite television.
ACTIVE SMUGGLING CORRIDOR
It is not clear to what extent the bases have contributed to declining arrests on the border, which were down to about 360,000 last year from highs of over 1.6 million in 2000. However, it seems likely they could play a bigger role should Congress pass measures to further tighten border security.
Gary Widner, the agent in charge of the Douglas sector, said having the forward bases makes sense, and not just because agents don't have to lose hours out of their working day driving out to the front lines.
"For any of the wilderness areas, this is ideal," he said. "If you have people camped in those areas ... they have a lot more opportunity to detect that traffic and interdict it."
Despite concerns by the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union, over the cost-effectiveness of the bases, which have a price tag of around $3 million each, they are supported by residents in remote areas.
The valley the Hedglen agents patrol, stretching between the Perilla and Peloncillo mountains, is an active corridor for illegal immigrants and for drug smugglers spiriting bundles of marijuana north in backpacks, pickup trucks and even ultralight aircraft.
While stationed at the base, agents keep an ear on the Border Patrol's radio traffic, which they say makes them more aware of movements through the valley's patchwork of federal, state and private lands.
Agents say the remote bases also give them a time advantage over colleagues from town when they have to respond to the triggering of sensors that the U.S. government has placed near the border to detect illegal crossings.
"If a sensor hits ... by the time you get out here, that's an hour longer, you are behind that traffic," agent Adrienne Crowley said.
Permanent forward operating bases trace their origins back to a more Spartan facility set up in Candelaria, in West Texas, in 1996, the Border Patrol said.
Hedglen was built after prominent Arizona rancher Rob Krentz was shot dead a few miles from the border in 2010 by a suspected smuggler - a crime that brought greater attention to security in remote areas.
Rancher Wendy Glenn, who lives in the area, said she was glad to have the base nearby, and wished the extra security could have come sooner, before Krentz was killed.
"Had they had the extra people ... out here as heavily as they are now, that may not have happened," she said.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)