It was a shift in strategy from apprehending migrants already in the U.S. to preventing entry in the first place, and the effect was almost immediate: Within months, illegal crossings in El Paso went from up to 10,000 a day to 500, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 1994 called "BORDER CONTROL: Revised Strategy Is Showing Some Positive Results."
Burglaries in neighborhoods like Chihuahuita decreased. Car thefts went down. And, as happened later in San Diego, apprehensions plunged: from nearly 286,000 in 1993 to about 9,700 last fiscal year in the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which encompasses 268 miles from West Texas across New Mexico. (Border Patrol staffing in the sector went from 608 agents in 1993 to more than 2,700 today.)
To El Paso Mayor John Cook, hinging reform to continued calls for a "secure border" seems absurd given the changes in his city.
"It is as secure as it has ever been. How secure is secure?" he said. "Some people who come with these ideas have no idea.
"I wish they would come down here and see."
But you don't have to drive too far into the New Mexico desert to see problems.
Marcus Martinez, the police chief in Lordsburg, N.M., recalled an incident in January where a local hotel manager stepped out to have a cigarette and saw a convoy of vehicles speeding through town. Four cars were eventually stopped — 80 miles north of the border — and 6 tons of marijuana were seized.
Patrick Green of the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office in Lordsburg, said northbound traffic is only part of the problem. Even as people and drugs are smuggled north, guns and money are flowing back south. He deals with constant reports by homeowners and ranchers about break-ins.
The area has seen a huge influx of Border Patrol agents, but officers like Green fear the government will always be behind the curve in dealing with sophisticated smuggling operations.
"If the Border Patrol puts more people in the ground, they will take to the mountains," Green said. "We are always playing catch up."
MCALLEN, Texas: In bicultural region, residents root for reform as the path to "secure"
Some 800 miles southeast of El Paso is the Rio Grande Valley, where rapid growth has overtaken sugar cane and cotton fields and sleepy hamlets are now thriving cities. More than 1.2 million people live in the two border counties on the U.S. side of this southernmost tip of Texas, and a similar number are directly across the border anchored by the sprawling cities of Matamoros and Reynosa.
Here, illegal crossers can quickly slip into communities without being forced to trek for days through wide-open spaces.
Part of the solution was the border fence, and 400 landowners — most of them in this part of Texas — had property seized to build it. The fence divided people from swaths of their own land, but also struck many as an offensive gesture in this bicultural, bilingual region that views itself as one community with its Mexican sister cities.
More effective, locals said, has been the influx of Border Patrol agents — 2,546 in the Rio Grande Valley today, almost seven times more than 20 years ago.
And while some agents still patrol on horseback, others are aided now by night-vision goggles and unmanned Predator drones watching from 19,000 feet overhead with high-powered infrared cameras.
Definitions of a secure border vary here, but there's agreement that the premise should not stand in the way of immigration reform.
Tony Garza remembers watching the flow of pedestrian traffic between Brownsville and Matamoros from his father's filling station just steps from the international bridge. He recalls migrant workers crossing the fairway on the 11th hole of a golf course — northbound in the morning, southbound in the afternoon. And during an annual celebration between the sister cities, no one was asked for their papers at the bridge. People were just expected to go home.
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