Garza, a Republican who served as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2002 to 2009, said it's easy to become nostalgic for those times, but he reminds himself that he grew up in a border town of fewer than 50,000 people that has grown into a city of more than 200,000.
The border here is more secure for the massive investment in recent years but feels less safe because the crime has changed, he said. Some of that has to do with transnational criminal organizations in Mexico and some of it is just the crime of a larger city.
Reform, he said, "would allow you to focus your resources on those activities that truly make the border less safe today."
Monica Weisberg-Stewart was born and raised an hour upriver in McAllen. Her father ran a store downtown that she runs today, filled with socks, underwear and jewelry. She echoes Garza's assessment that things feel less safe now but says that has more to do with the area's growth than with what's happening in Mexico.
"I thought that this was definitely the best place to raise my family," she said, "and I still believe that to be true today."
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino points out that drug, gun and human smuggling is nothing new to the border. The difference is the attention that the drug-related violence in Mexico has drawn to the region in recent years.
He insists his county, which includes McAllen, is safe. The crime rate is falling, and illegal immigrants account for small numbers in his jail. But asked if the border is "secure," Trevino doesn't hesitate. "Absolutely not."
"When you're busting human trafficking stash houses with 60 to 100 people that are stashed in a two, three-bedroom home for weeks at a time, how can you say you've secured the border?" he said.
Trevino's view, however, is that those people might not be there if they had a legal path to work in the U.S.
"Immigration reform is the first thing we have to accomplish before we can say that we have secured the border," he said.
NOGALES, Ariz.: In nation's busiest illegal corridor, ranchers scoff at "secure"
Everywhere he goes on his cattle ranch, Jim Chilton has a gun at the ready. He has guns at his front door, guns in his pickup truck, guns on his horse's saddle. His fear? Coming across a bandit or a smuggler on his land northwest of Nogales, Ariz.
Cattleman Gary Thrasher frequently encounters immigrants and smugglers running through his property. Some have showered in his barn. He and his family live in constant dread.
"They really have secured the towns right along the border, but what that does is it drives all the traffic out into the rural areas around here," said Thrasher, a rancher and veterinarian for more than 40 years on the border east of Douglas, Ariz. "It sends the traffic right into our backyards."
The question of border security hits close to home to those who work the land in southern Arizona. It was here, in 2010, that cattle rancher Robert Krentz was gunned down while checking water lines on his property near Douglas. Local authorities have said they believe the killer was involved in smuggling either humans or drugs.
That same year, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout near Nogales with Mexican gunmen that brought attention to the federal government's botched weapons-trafficking probe called "Fast and Furious."
"The border is not secure," said Chilton. "Period. Exclamation mark."
Defining "secure border" in Arizona is never easy. Just last week, U.S. Sen. John McCain hosted two town hall meetings on immigration reform in his home state, and was left defending a plan he's been developing.
During a heated gathering in the Phoenix suburb of Sun Lakes, one man yelled that only guns would discourage illegal immigration. Another man complained that illegal immigrants should never be able to become citizens or vote. A third man said illegal immigrants were illiterate invaders who wanted free government benefits.
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