McCain urged compassion. "We are a Judeo-Christian nation," he said.
The crackdowns in Texas and California in the 1990s turned Arizona's border into the busiest for human smuggling for 15 years running now.
In 2000, agents in the Tucson sector made more than 616,000 apprehensions — a near all-time high for any Border Patrol sector. The number eventually began dipping as the agency hired more than 1,000 new agents and the economy collapsed. State crackdowns such as the "show me your papers" law — requiring police enforcing other laws to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally — are also thought to have driven migrants away.
The result: the sector had 120,000 apprehensions in fiscal 2012.
But the amount of drugs seized in Arizona has soared at the same time. Agents confiscated more than 1 million pounds of marijuana in the Tucson sector last year, more than double the amount seized in 2005.
In Nogales, Sheriff Tony Estrada has a unique perspective on both border security and more comprehensive immigration reform. Born in Nogales, Mexico, Estrada grew up in Nogales, Ariz., after migrating to the U.S. with his parents. He has served as a lawman in the community since 1966.
He blames border security issues not only on the cartels but on the American demand for drugs. Until that wanes, he said, nothing will change. And securing the border, he added, must be a constant, ever-changing effort that blends security and political support — because the effort will never end.
"The drugs are going to keep coming. The people are going to keep coming. The only thing you can do is contain it as much as possible.
"I say the border is as safe and secure as it can be, but I think people are asking for us to seal the border, and that's unrealistic," he said.
Asked why, he said simply: "That's the nature of the border."
Spagat reported from San Diego, Llorca from El Paso, Sherman from McAllen and Skoloff from Phoenix. Also contributing to this report was AP writer Cristina Silva in Phoenix.
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