Trigger Happy

How exactly do you define a "secure" border?

President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators both unveiled frameworks for immigration reform last week.

There's a lot of overlap between the plans. Both call for a more secure border, a guest-worker program, better technology to help employers ensure they are hiring legal workers and—most controversially—a "path to citizenship" for undocumented people now living in the United States, provided they pass a background check to prove they haven't been involved in serious criminal activity and they pay a fine and back taxes.

But there's a key difference: The White House plan calls a more rapid pace to normalize the status of those 11 million undocumented residents.

"We can't allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate," Obama said last week in Las Vegas. "We've been debating this a very long time. So it's not as if we don't know technically what needs to get done."

The Senate plan—backed by Arizona Sens. John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake—also calls for normalization of the status of undocumented workers now in the country with an eventual path to citizenship, but that would only be triggered "upon securing the border and combating visa overstays," according to the framework outline.

To help determine if the border is secure, the Senate plan creates a commission of "governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border to monitor the progress of securing our border and make recommendations."

Gov. Jan Brewer told Fox News last week that the assessment of border security "ought to be determined by all of us collectively together. We need to talk to the experts. We need to talk to the people that live at the border, and certainly the elected officials that are the people getting contacted and dealing with it not only on a daily basis, but you know, we've been dealing with it on a daily basis for years."

The definition of a "secure" border is going to differ, depending on who you talk to. During his Senate campaign last year, Flake said the Tucson sector of the border should have the same sort of operational control that the Yuma Sector now does.

As Flake put it during a debate with Democrat Richard Carmona, "if we can do in the Tucson sector what we've done in the Yuma sector, then we can move on to all the other reforms that are really needed."

But others say the border is as secure as it's likely to get, from a statistical standpoint. The Pew Research Hispanic Center noted in an April 2012 that the "net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed."

The federal government has boosted spending on border security over the last eight years to build more walls, hire more Border Patrol agents and invest in more technology. A recent Government Accounting Office report shows that the Border Patrol estimates that the number of people crossing into the Tucson Sector has decreased in recent years. The estimated number of border crossers peaked in 2007 at about 650,000 and dropped to about 200,000 in 2011.

That's partially due to increased enforcement efforts along the border, but also because of the slowdown of the U.S. economy in recent years, according to the GAO report.

But the report reveals a fundamental problem for the Border Patrol: While they have a lot more resources, they don't have a great grasp on what works and what doesn't when it comes to assigning Border Patrol agents in the field.

Congressman Ron Barber had a town hall meeting last week to discuss the results of the GAO report.

"We've invested billions of dollars in solving the problem," Barber said. "We need to see progress."

Barber added that he was still concerned about the security of Southern Arizona residents.

"We are still the heaviest trafficked area of any sector along the border," Barber said. "While some improvements have been made and progress has been made, from my standpoint, we still have a ways to go to make sure that people feel safe in their homes along the border."

Cochise County rancher and veterinarian Gary Thrasher said he and his neighbors still have to deal with the impact of border crossers.

"If you're not worried about traffic coming across the border, you're worried about animal diseases, fences being down and animals mixing," Thrasher said.

Thrasher said that towns along the border are "safer than they've ever been."

But as a result, undocumented border crossers are "pushed out to where I live, where my clients live, where I have to work everyday," Thrasher said.

The biggest revelation in the report, Thrasher said, was that local Border Patrol station chiefs determine how the agents are deployed in the Tucson sector.

He said he'd like to see Border Patrol agents on the actual border where drug smugglers and coyotes are crossing.

"I'd rather see the billions of dollars spent on more horse patrols sitting right at the border than I would on an enormous fence," Thrasher said. "It would do a hell of lot less damage, it wouldn't be so ugly, and they do a good job of getting up in there."

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