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The Quest For A Secure Border

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The Quest For A Secure Border

The Quest For A Secure Border

ARIVACA, Ariz. -- Border security first. That’s the rallying call of many political conservatives who see 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country as clear evidence that the federal government has failed the job of border enforcement.

And they say, before we reform the immigration system, and offer a path to citizenship to those who came here illegally, we need to secure the border.

Here in the communications room of the U.S. Border Patrol’s station in Nogales, Ariz., two men sit facing a wall of computer screens. Amid the scratch and static coming from the radios of agents in the field, the two men move joysticks back and forth, watching the displays. They see what the massive cameras mounted along the Mexico border see. A single figure is standing near the looming border wall that separates the two countries. That makes the camera operator suspicious.

"He’s talking to someone to see if the coast is clear,” the operator said.

This is the modern face of high tech border security. It’s become a massive slice of federal law enforcement spending -- $18 billion was spent last year on immigration and port security. That was more than on drug enforcement, the FBI and gun investigations combined. The Border Patrol alone more than doubled in size in the last decade to more than 21,000 agents. The Homeland Security Department has built 652 miles of steel barriers all along the border.

Is it working? And if so, how do we define that?

Andy Adame is a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. On a cold January morning, he’s driving on a dirt trail set against a backdrop of yellowing grasses and looming mesquite trees toward the border fence -- no longer strands of cheap barbed wire dividing the two countries.

Photo by Michel Marizco

The new U.S.-Mexico border fence west of Nogales actually sits about 40 feet north of the physical boundary, creating a sort of no-man's land marked by low-slung vehicle barriers.

"You don’t see that anymore," he says. He points to the fence. "This, in order to cross this, you better be 18 to 40 years old and in good physical condition."

It’s called the PV-1, thirty feet of diamond-shaped steel bars above ground and six feet more below. It can absorb a pickup truck ramming into it at 55 miles an hour.

"I think we have reached that point where we have a significant amount of fencing where it does now have an impact on illegal immigration and drug organizations trying to bring their illicit cargo across," Adame said.

Here’s one measure of success: Apprehensions across the entire border have dropped. Some places like San Diego have reported arrests have dropped to a third of what they were.

But the numbers don’t tell the full story. For example, recividism rates only declined about 6 percent from 2008 to 2011. And the agency’s Tucson Sector remains the busiest in the country, accounting for more than a third of illegal traffic.

The numbers can be confusing, too. Arrests of illegal immigrants drop and that’s called a success. But the amount of drugs seized goes up and that’s also called a success. While 2011's apprehension numbers dropped compared to 2008, drug seizures went up by 20 percent.

Photo by Michel Marizco

A man from Veracruz awaits processing at the U.S. Border Patrol detention center in Nogales, Ariz.

Both were called a success.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was asked about that juxtaposition last summer by a member of a Homeland Security Oversight congressional committee.

"The apprehension numbers are used as a proxy for how many are attempting. We actually think that we are now picking up almost everybody that is trying to cross that border illegally," she said.

That created a stir. Members of Congress wanted to know, where?

“Oh, I would have to give you a list. At least one of the Arizona sectors, I think we are getting virtually everybody," she said.

The question of success has continued so long that Congressman Ron Barber in Tucson finally asked the Government Accountability Office to study what’s been spent and what’s been accomplished.

"What they found was that there really is a plan without goals, without measurements, or an evaluation function. Which means, we really don’t have a plan," Barber said.

His proposal: Ask the people who actually live on the border.

"They’re going to tell me if they see a lower number of people coming through. They’re going to tell me if they can go to town without taking their kids with them. If they can go to the clothesline without wearing a weapon because they feel more secure and safe on their own land," Barber said.

One of those border residents is Jim Chilton. He lives 19 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in the small town of Arivaca. His cattle ranch runs all the way down to Mexico and he’s seen it all. Dozens of people arrested just back behind his house. Spotters working for drug runners laying up in the hills on his ranch watching for agents.

Broken Border: Immigration Reform in the Southwest

Our series, Broken Border, peels apart the complex tangle of the immigration debate to explore what matters.

Despite Napolitano’s claims, Chilton says the job isn’t done.

"A secure border means to me that the United States government is protecting me from foreign threats," Chilton said.

For its part, Customs and Border Protection agreed with the GAO’s audit. It has said it will design a plan that finally defines for itself what border security actually means. That answer will come next November. Congressman Barber says he’s going to hold a series of public meetings in the border region to develop an answer now.


Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.