In the latest in our series Broken Border, Immigration Reform in the Southwest, Fronteras reporter Michel Marizco looks at what border security means and whether the U.S. has reached its goal.
In the communications room of the U.S. Border Patrol's station in Nogales, two men sit facing a wall of computer screens. 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. The camera operator becomes suspicious and says, "he's talking to someone to see if the coast is clear."
This is the modern face of high tech border security. It's become a big slice of federal law enforcement spending - $18 billion were 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 its size in the last decade to more than 21 thousand agents. Homeland Security has built 650 miles of steel barriers along the border. But, 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 towards the border fence - no longer strands of cheap barbed wire dividing the two countries. He says, "you don't see that anymore. 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. 30 feet of steel bars above ground and 6 below. It can absorb a pickup truck ramming into it at 55 miles per hour. Adame says, "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."
Here's one measure of success: Apprehensions across the entire border have dropped significantly, down 47% in 2011. That's due to both increased security like the fence and high tech cameras, but also the poor economy. Last summer, this is what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had to say about it, "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."
But Napolitano had to backtrack that statement. It turns out that what she really meant was that people were no longer getting through parts of Arizona. 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."
And that matters to people who live along the border. Jim Chilton 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 behind his house, spotters working for drug runners laying in the hills above his ranch waiting for agents. Despite Janet Napolitano's claims, Chilton says the job isn't done. He says, "a secure border means to me that the United States government is protecting me from foreign threats."
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 Ron Barber says he's going to hold a series of public meetings in the border region.