Is the border the most secure it's ever been? - New York News

Is the border the most secure it's ever been?

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NOGALES, Ariz. -

As Congress debates a comprehensive solution to illegal immigration, many are demanding "secure the border first."

Five years ago I flew with Customs and Border Protection in a Blackhawk helicopter and witnessed chaos along the border.

While the situation has vastly improved, opinions are divided over why.

Arizona's 368 mile border with Mexico remains the most popular illegal gateway into the United States. More than half of all illegal crossings into the U.S. happen here.

But in the past few years, the numbers along the Arizona border have dropped significantly. When the economy tanked and jobs were scarce -- illegal entries declined.

In 2000, 616,000 illegal immigrants were intercepted trying to cross the border. Last year that number dropped to 120,000.

"I don't think it's any secret that the majority of these people are coming to work," said Jeffrey Self, Joint Field Commander.

Improved fencing has made a difference, especially around the populated ports of entry like Nogales. This is a section of the original fence built back in the 90s, the first serious attempt at a border fence. Still pretty sturdy but these posts are hollow. Compare that to the newer fence built a couple of years ago in 2011. This is steel filled with concrete and rebar -- almost impossible to cut through.

This warehouse in Nogales once held hundreds of illegals captured every day. Today, the cages are empty. Instead of people, they now house old furniture and computers.

While improved fencing and high tech surveillance have made it harder to cross, the determined still find a way. In this Nogales parking lot, in the shadow of the border fence, three tunnels were discovered and plugged this year.

"The callousness, the desperation of these criminal organizations they're using any means necessary to operate," said Brent Cagen, U.S. Border Protection.

And right across the street, another tunnel ran right into this building.

"When agents made these apprehensions there were more than 100 people inside."

The drug cartels are hardly standing down. On this day, at the Nogales port of entry, field agents busted a woman smuggling $85,000 worth of heroin in her crotch and bra.

"I noticed the passenger had abnormally large breasts," said a border agent.

Technology can never replace the trained eyes of agents.

"It's something that we see every day, 8 hours a day. And she just didn't seem right to me."

While the ports of entry are the most secure places on the border, people might be surprised to learn Mexicans, who have a B1-B2 visa can enter Arizona, go as far north as Tucson, and stay for up to 30 days.

The idea is keep people and commerce flowing.

"They live in Mexico they come over here to shop and go right back."

Border security on the honor system.

"We like to say about 98 percent of the people who come through here are legitimate travelers, so that shows you what our challenge is, to pinpoint those who are indeed up to no good."

As border security has improved, it's pushing drug smugglers and human traffickers into more remote, dangerous regions of the border.

That's where airplanes, helicopters and drones come into play. Eyes in the sky for the agents on the ground.

The aircraft moves where needed by the people in this room.

"We're taking our aircraft and putting them in position to help our people in the field make those interdictions."

But all the security and technology the government can muster will never stop the dream of a better life that waits on the other side of this fence.

"It does open your eyes to why people would choose to come to the United States," said Cagen. "Is there an immigration solution, I don't know. Is there a way to stop it completely I don't know. What I can tell you is that this has slowed it down significantly."

Along Arizona's 368-mile border with Mexico, 306 miles has some fencing.

The other 62 miles are in areas where the geography does not lend itself to a fence.

But as one source told me, fences, agents, technology aside, for those who are committed to coming to the U.S. -- 3 out of 4 -- eventually make it. One way or another.

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