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Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is working to develop a reform plan, said in his State of the Union response this month. “But first,” he added, “we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”In fact, the 1,954 mile border with Mexico is more difficult to breach than ever. Today there are 18,500. Compare that to 1.2 million apprehensions in 1993, when new strategies began bringing officers and technology to border communities in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. In Arizona, ranchers scoff at the idea. In New Mexico, locals worry about what’s heading south in addition to flowing north. Sealed? No. But as one border mayor asked: “How secure is secure?”__SAN DIEGO: From “banzai runs” to Brooks BrothersDon McDermott spent most of his 21 years in the Border Patrol working the San Diego sector. soil as vendors hawked tamales and tacos. The “soccer field” was too dangerous to patrol, so agents positioned themselves a half mile out, waiting for nightfall when groups would make a run for freedom.”Hopefully you would catch more people that you saw going past you,” said McDermott, who retired in 2008. government launched “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, modeled on a crackdown the previous year in El Paso, Texas. The effort brought 1,000 additional agents to San Diego. They parked their trucks against a rusting 8 foot high fence made of Army surplus landing mats, and refused to yield an inch. They called it “marking the X.”As apprehension numbers fell, home values skyrocketed. In 2001, an outlet mall opened right along the border. An 18 foot high steel mesh fence extending roughly 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean was completed in 2009, with razor wire topping about half of it. Agents averaged 11 arrests each, a change that marvels veterans. They pelted agents with rocks, hoping to create an opening for a mad dash when other agents rushed to help. As he waited for breakfast at a Tijuana migrant shelter, Jose de Jesus Scott nodded toward a roommate who did. Scott, 31, was tempted to return to his wife and two young daughters near Guadalajara. But, with deep roots in suburban Los Angeles and cooking jobs that pay up to $1,200 a week, he will likely try the same route a third time.”You need a lot of smarts and a lot of luck,” he said. “Mostly luck.”It’s a new world.”___EL PASO, Texas: Steel bars still up; crossings and crime downBurglar bars still protect many a home in the Chihuahuita neighborhood near downtown El Paso, a reminder of a time when immigrant crossers would break in looking for food or trying to duck the Border Patrol. Carmen Silva recalls those days. At 90, she tells of migrants hiding under cars and in backyards. Now, she says: “Nobody comes through anymore.”Patricia Rayjosa has lived in the same neighborhood as Silva for the past 18 years. Once, she said, migrants crossed 30, 40, 50 at a time to overwhelm agents standing watch. Others swam across the Rio Grande or waded north on tire tubes.”One morning, as I went out to feed my dogs, I found . wire cutters. I didn’t see them but I could tell they went across my backyard,” said Rayjosa, 53. But she agrees with Silva’s assessment. Now, “It’s not easy to cross.”In the early 1990s, El Paso ran second to San Diego in the number of illegal immigrants coming north. 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. Even as people and drugs are smuggled north, guns and money are flowing back south. “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. 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. 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 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. He has guns at his front door, guns in his pickup truck, guns on his horse’s saddle. 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. “Period. Exclamation mark.”Defining “secure border” in Arizona is never easy. Sen. Another man complained that illegal immigrants should never be able to become citizens or vote. The number eventually began dipping as the agency hired more than 1,000 new agents and the economy collapsed. with his parents. 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.