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The Quest For A Secure Border

Above: Workers raised the gate on the border fence of the U.S.-Mexico boundary to clean away debris from a cross-border wash. Accumulated debris has knocked down fence segments in the past.


Aired 1/23/13

The latest in our Broken Border series looks at what border security really means and whether the United States has reached its goal.

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.

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.

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.

Special Feature 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.

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Avatar for user 'jskdn'

jskdn | January 25, 2013 at 11:11 a.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

Illegal drugs and illegal immigrants are different problems. Illegal drugs are inherently outside the law and hidden. The government doesn't have to facilitate their use, as it facilitates life for illegal immigrants, for there to exist a demand that assures a supply. Illegal drugs will always be a battle and the success against them at the border is also detracted by resources taken up by combating illegal immigrants trying to get in, sometimes actually being used as sacrificial distractions to facilitate drug smuggling.

Border enforcement for illegal immigrants is largely just political theater. You shouldn't believe any politician that talks like illegal immigration can be controlled by what is done at the border. That will never work when what illegal immigrants can expect once in the country bears no coherent relationship to the notion that they shouldn't be here. Currently, those who are in the country in violation of our immigration laws need have little fear of being removed, have easy access to employment and other benefits of being in the country and could reasonable expect to receive the opportunity to permanently stay, eventually becoming citizens. If you don't want illegal immigration then you shouldn't listen to any politician that doesn't say explicitly how they will change that, without which, there is no reason not to expect illegal immigration to continue. And if the uselessness of the border-only enforcement game wasn't obvious enough, it is estimated that 40% of the illegal immigrants didn't enter the country illegally.

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Avatar for user 'Brittanicus'

Brittanicus | January 25, 2013 at 2:35 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

We cannot afford to support the world’s poor anymore.

Only by the American public speaking out of moderate Liberals, Democrats, Republicans and the growing ranks of the TEA PARTY and demanding no backdoor amnesty, no Comprehensive Immigration Reform. It will only cause the encouragement of millions of more poverty stricken people reaching here and becoming a burden on our society. Before anything else we must secure our borders and track all visitors on airline flight arrival, which is not being accomplished now. President Obama is running our economy into the ground, as an Independent I personally desire like the majority of Americans no new taxes to pander to illegal aliens. THE 1986 AMNESTY WAS A TRAGIC JOKE FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE AND IT WAS A COMPLETE AND UTTER FRAUDULENT BETRAYAL OF TAXPAYERS.

This letter beneath was in a blog, a knowledgeable official, that amplifies the corruption played on the American people in 1986.
This idea of "earned" legalization is a complete lie. Examples of "earning" complete citizenship include (1) "paying taxes" (2) "learning English" (3) "paying a fine" and (4) "going to the back of the line", etc.
But illegal aliens don't make much money, and therefore don't pay much in taxes. So that's silly to talk about.
As for the English requirement, we had that in the 1986 amnesty too, and they only had to go to a few classes and get a paper signed by the La Raza worker leading the class; there was no exam, no evidence that anyone actually learned English. And do you think O is going to deport people who don't learn how to conjugate their verbs? Ha!
The "paying a fine" thing was in past amnesties, and it's meant to look like a punishment. But the INS granted waivers for people who couldn't pay it. We'll see tons of waivers issued again, making this anything but a punishment. Heck, USCIS waives application fees too!
The "back of the line" is in their homeland, but they'll never have to go there under an amnesty. The idea is that if they are in the back of the line, they won't be jumping in front of those immigrants who are playing by the rules. Yet amnesty applicants will get a legal stay, work permits, drivers licenses, access to welfare, etc. so that they really aren't in the back of any line. They would absolutely get way ahead of people applying LEGALLY, and the U.S. will send the message that it's better to come illegally, and we'll see more illegal immigration. That's what happened after 1986.

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Avatar for user 'Brittanicus'

Brittanicus | January 25, 2013 at 2:37 p.m. ― 4 years, 1 month ago

Those of us who contemplate an avalanche of people at the borders or sudden surge in airline visitors can make a difference? Your phone book has a list of Senators and Congressional leaders and you should contact them. We cannot hesitate anymore as more than a million legal immigrants arrive here annually, not counting the new illegal migrants and immigrants This maybe our last chance to send a fusillade of angry voices, that will stop the rising taxes to cater to foothold babies smuggled into America and the hundreds of billions of dollars—TRILLIONS OVER TIME--collected from us to pay for them and their families. ONLY in mass as one voice do we have a hope of this Congress not turning America into a balkanized, Socialist nation of tax and spend? Read the unnerving facts of Obama’s rule at Judicial Watch and not be intimidated by the leftist editorial in the mainstream newspapers and TV news.

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