Sunday, October 24, 2010

Border 101

Arizona Daily Star
October 24, 2010
by Brady McCombs

From congressional races to the gubernatorial showdown, border issues have taken center stage in many campaigns this election season.

If you are dizzy from all the talk and rhetoric, you're not alone. So today, we sort out some of the most popular election-season facts, myths and half-truths:

Is the border more dangerous than ever?

Answer: For people illegally crossing it, yes. For people living near it in Mexico, probably. For people living on the U.S. side of the border, probably not.

Some will vehemently disagree with that last statement, pointing to the March killing of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz and an increase in burglaries in the Portal area as evidence that the level of danger on the U.S. side of the border has increased. But while Cochise County investigators say they tracked footprints back to Mexico, the Krentz crime is unsolved.

The FBI's uniform crime reports show violent crime is no more prevalent in border cities than in nonborder cities.

Since 2001, the average violent-crime rate in eight border cities declined, and it has remained below the national violent-crime rate since 2005, said an August 2010 report by the Congressional Research Center, which reviewed FBI crime reports from 1998 to 2008.

In Tucson and Phoenix - the two largest cities on the smuggling route through Arizona - murder and violent crime decreased from 2005 to 2009, FBI data show.

The ratio of assaults on Border Patrol agents dipped 36 percent across the Southwest border from 2007 to 2010. But that ratio increased by 70 percent in the Tucson Sector over the same period. Most of the reported assaults are when rocks are thrown at agents.

The danger of crossing the border illegally has increased, though. Illegal immigrants are dying at greater rates than ever in Arizona, likely because the border buildup has prompted smugglers to lead crossers into more remote and dangerous areas.

The 252 illegal border crossers found dead along Arizona's stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border excluding Yuma in fiscal 2010 broke the previous record of 234, set in 2007.

Is Arizona the epicenter for illegal immigration?

Answer: Yes and no.

Arizona's stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border is the busiest for illegal immigration, drug smuggling and border deaths, accounting for more than half of all arrests and marijuana seizures. But the state is more of a transit point than a destination.

The estimate of 375,000 illegal immigrants living in Arizona puts the state eighth in the U.S. behind California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Georgia, a September report from the Pew Hispanic Center found.

And the number of illegal immigrants living in Arizona dropped from an estimated 475,000 in 2008, the Pew report found.

But Arizona has thrust itself into the national spotlight on this issue due to the numerous immigration-enforcement laws passed by the state, including SB 1070.

Has the federal government really done nothing to secure the border?

Answer: You can question the effectiveness of the billions spent, but there's no denying the massive buildup of border enforcement over the last five to 10 years:

• The budget for Customs and Border Protection - the Department of Homeland Security agency responsible for border security - soared to $11.4 billion in fiscal 2010, up 90 percent from $6 billion in fiscal year 2004. That's nearly twice the growth of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget, which increased 54 percent to $5.7 billion in fiscal 2010, up from $3.7 billion in 2004. ICE is responsible for immigration enforcement at worksites and across the interior of the country.

• The number of Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border has increased to 17,500, up from 9,700 in 2004. The Tucson Sector, which stretches from New Mexico to Yuma County, now has 3,300 agents, up from 2,100 in 2004 and 1,500 in 2000.

• The miles of fencing along the border have grown exponentially. There are now 350 miles of pedestrian fence and 299 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, for a total of 649 miles of barriers. That's up from 143 miles of barriers in 2006.

The Tucson Sector has 71 miles of pedestrian fences and 139 miles of vehicle barriers. In 2000, it had 11 miles of pedestrian fences and two miles of vehicle barriers.

Pedestrian fences are 12- to 18-foot-high barriers designed to stop, or at least slow down, people. Vehicle barriers are waist- to chest-high and are designed to stop cars.

• The agency has spent more than $1 billion since 2006 developing the SBInet "virtual fence," which tracks movement using a network of towers mounted with cameras, sensors and radar. But the program has been plagued by delays and glitches.

• In the past five years, the feds have twice sent the National Guard to the border to assist the Border Patrol. In Operation Jump Start, from 2006 to 2008, the government spent $1.2 billion to send 6,000 National Guard troops. In the current Operation Copper Cactus, the government is spending $135 million to send 1,200 troops.

• Homeland Security has devoted $225 million to border law enforcement agencies through Operation Stonegarden, including about $51 million to Arizona agencies. The program gives agencies money to pay officers who work overtime shifts aimed at securing the border. The money also buys four-wheel-drive trucks, radios and night-vision goggles.

Has the buildup of agents, fences and technology made the border more secure?

Answer: Probably, but to what degree is uncertain.

Fewer illegal immigrants are crossing the Southwest border, but it's difficult to determine how much of that is attributed to the buildup, because the decrease has coincided with the worst U.S. recession since the Depression.

The number of apprehensions by Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted to 447,500 in fiscal year 2010, down from 1.1 million in fiscal year 2004.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledges that the weak economy helps explain why fewer people are getting caught crossing the border illegally, and she also credited crackdowns on employers who hire illegal workers. But she said a big reason is enforcement.

"The manpower, the technology, the infrastructure all has enabled us to be able to really slow that flow of illegal-immigrant traffic," she said at a news conference last week near San Diego.

Citing the seizures of more drugs, weapons and illicit cash along the Mexican border, Napolitano said: "We now have a border more secure than ever before."

But using the same rationale the feds apply to apprehensions - the lower the better - the buildup has not slowed the smuggling of drugs. Marijuana seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border by Border Patrol agents have increased to 2.5 million pounds in fiscal year 2009, up from 1.3 million in 2004.

So many people say, 'Build more fence.' Does it work?

Answer: Nobody knows for sure.

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office found that "despite a $2.4 billion investment to build 264 miles of fencing and 226 miles of vehicle barriers in the last five years, the impact of these barriers on border security is unknown because it has not been measured."

Proponents of border fencing point to double-layer fencing in San Diego and Yuma as proof that barriers work. Apprehensions dipped there after the fences went up, but the smugglers simply moved their routes.

The Border Patrol's 262-mile-long Tucson Sector has 71 miles of fencing, but it remains the busiest people- and drug-smuggling route on the border, accounting for nearly half of all arrests and marijuana seizures.

The problem with fences is that motivated smugglers and border crossers find ways over, through and around them. Critics call them nothing more than a speed bump. And the international border's diverse terrain, which includes mountains, canyons and rivers, makes a 2,000-mile fence impossible.

Border Patrol officials acknowledge that the barriers are not a panacea. But they say they deter, slow and funnel traffic, helping agents gain the upper hand in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game with smugglers.

The government has spent $2.4 billion on new fences, and the GAO estimates the life-cycle cost of all the barriers to be $6.5 billion.

The buildup of fences and roads along the border could have environmental consequences, too. Fencing has caused flooding and erosion, and it could be fragmenting wildlife habitat.

Virtual fences are better for the environment, but despite more than $1 billion spent over five years, the SBInet program has been plagued by glitches and major delays, and has yet to produce a working system. The GAO has questioned whether the time and money spent are a prudent use of limited resources.

Has violence from Mexico's raging drug wars spilled over the border?

Answer: It's not entirely clear, but most indicators say no.

The public shootouts, beheadings and killings that are part of life in northern Mexico due to the ongoing turf battles between drug cartels do not occur in Arizona. But some violence in Arizona may be associated with the illegal smuggling of people and drugs.

And there's no way to say spillover violence won't happen.

"Currently, U.S. federal officials deny that the recent increase in drug-trafficking-related violence in Mexico has resulted in a spillover into the United States," said an August 2010 report from the Congressional Research Center. "But they acknowledge that the prospect is a serious concern."

Is it possible to seal the border?

Answer: Probably not.

There are some who believe it's possible, such as the Border Patrol agents' union. But even the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the focus should be on controlling the border, not sealing it.

"This is not about sealing the border," Commissioner Alan Bersin said in September while in Tucson. "Until we have a legitimate labor market between Mexico and the United States, people will attempt to come here to work."

History shows that as long as better-paying jobs await in the U.S., people from Mexico and Latin America will continue to find a way around, through, under and over the gantlet of enforcement.

Not even the worst U.S. recession since the Depression has stopped the stream of illegal immigrants.

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at

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