EL PASO, Texas -- Edmund Lozano knows the fence that winds along the Mexico-U.S. border. He built it. “We would show up in the morning and find spots where people on the other side tried to pry open the fence or cut holes in it,” said Lozano, who was paid $25 an hour in 2007 to operate a forklift and move the massive steel beams and tight wire mesh. “That tells you how determined they are to get across.”
Lozano, a 26-year-old college student and hotel bartender, considers the fence a formidable policy statement but mostly that — a symbol. “We do have to have some security, to say enough is enough. But it’s not worth spending more money on. Let’s move on to other immigration issues.”
A precipitous buildup along the border has made it tougher than ever to get into the United States. Yet as lawmakers in Washington begin to tackle immigration reform, the debate hinges on a familiar, charged question:
Is the border secure enough?
Republicans insist comprehensive reform cannot start until the border is fully secure and call for the personnel, infrastructure and technology to “prevent, detect and apprehend every unauthorized entrant.”
President Barack Obama says the border has never been safer. The number of patrol agents has doubled since 2004, and they are armed with sophisticated equipment like body heat-sensing cameras. Helicopters and drones watch from above. Arrests have fallen to the lowest levels in decades. Tens of billions have been spent.
Along the border, as in Washington, there is little agreement over what security looks like, how effective it has been, if more is needed and if so, at what cost to the federal budget or to generations-old bonds between communities now on opposite sides of a war over people and drugs.
“The fence breaks my heart. It reminds me of East and West Berlin,” said Susan Phillips, 64, eating at L & J Cafe, a cozy El Paso dive whose cheap, tasty tacos and chili rellenos draw bikers and families alike. “If somebody wants to get here, they’re going to get here. It doesn’t matter if there are fences or drones. How much more can we do?”
Head west into New Mexico and Arizona, through rural outposts where people sleep with rifles next to their beds for fear of drug smugglers, and the question of border security becomes intensely personal. Tensions rise and opinions differ.
The white SUV climbed a dirt road through a landfill and rested on a plateau. To the left lay the city of El Paso, to the right, Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez. Splitting the middle: an 18-foot steel fence, its rusty patina adding a measure of heft. Concrete shoots 10 feet into the ground so people can’t dig under.
“It’s not made to stop people,” U.S. Border Patrol agent Lorena Apodaca said. “This is just to slow people down.”
They throw up ladders, use ropes or simply climb over. On a bridge connecting the cities, border crossers rappel down ropes, garden hoses, whatever works. Two years ago authorities were shocked to find a tunnel under the Rio Grande that an exceptionally skinny teenager crawled through, dragging sacks of drugs.
“One thing we’ve learned as agents is not to underestimate the ingenuity of the Mexican smuggler,” said Apodaca’s partner, Vennesa Martinez.
Even in this heavily protected city, weak spots are evident. All that stands in some places is a six-foot, chain-link fence, or no fence at all. Along one low-lying section that locals call the “tortilla fence,” because it bends and cuts easily, an endless cat-and-mouse game is played. Smugglers run up to the fence and make snips all day while agents hurry to patch holes.
And yet, the battle is being won. Nearly 357,000 people were caught trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border in 2012, down from more than 1.6 million in 2000. The numbers may justify the expense — and encourage more investments. Border enforcement topped $11.7 billion last year, up from $6.3 billion in 2005.
Other factors, often overlooked, are at work. The immigration drop accelerated as the U.S. economy worsened and the Mexican economy picked up. Mexican fertility rates have fallen sharply since 1970, shrinking the pool of immigrants. And drug cartel violence in Mexico has made it harder, and more expensive, for people to leave.
“Migration flows are often more connected to supply and demand rather than the power of the state to enforce control over the borders,” said Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas El Paso and expert on border issues. “Politicians feel obligated to say, ‘Secure our borders,’ but they’re not thinking about what’s actually going on.”
Critics call attention to what the government numbers do not say: how many people make it over successfully. And despite Border Patrol statistics showing seizures are down, marijuana and cocaine continue to flow across the border at El Paso, where congestion at legal entry points has hurt enforcement.
Ricardo Nevarez, 24, said smugglers tell him he can make $1,000 simply by driving a drug car over the border. “They know I won’t do it, but they still offer it,” he said.
Nevarez, who like almost everyone in El Paso has relatives across the border in Ciudad Juárez, says he’s lost five friends to drug violence there. Thousands have been murdered in recent years, 3,400 in 2010 alone.
Politicians have cast the border as a wildly dangerous place, justifying calls for the U.S. military to step in and hardening the climate for reform in Washington. But spillover violence remains largely a myth. In 2011, USA Today analyzed FBI crime data and found border cities were statistically safer than other parts of the country, even as a poll showed an overwhelming number of Americans thought the reverse.
The disconnect infuriates El Paso residents, who say past standards for border security have been met. A failed 2007 immigration bill called for 20,000 border patrol agents. Now there are nearly 21,400. Today about 650 miles of the 2,000-mile border have some sort of barrier, about what was called for in 2007.
“We cannot stand any more militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border,” said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat. “We’ve satisfied any existing conditions necessary for quote unquote border security. I put that in air quotes because no one has yet defined what “border security” means.”
The drug trade, fueled by U.S. appetites, has made ordinary border crossing more dangerous and expensive. Cartels charge anywhere from a few hundred dollars for people to cross on their own to a few thousand for an escort. That, along with the fences and border agents in highly traveled areas like El Paso, has forced immigrants to cross in more remote areas.
“It used to be real easy but now it’s difficult,” said José, 39, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who refused to give his last name.
“A lot of people are afraid to cross because of all the trouble,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh I’m going to run in the desert,’ but you might get robbed or killed.”
José said he did not have the money to pay the cartel and did not want to do a “job” for them, which meant strapping on a backpack full of marijuana. So he walked through the New Mexico desert.
The trip, eight months ago, took him a week and a half.
José has crossed the border 10 times in the past five years. The El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes all of New Mexico, has sought to deter repeat offenders with an “enhanced prosecution” program that includes mandatory jail time for people who are apprehended at the border.
But not all sectors follow the same rules. Said Martinez, the patrol agent in El Paso, “When we catch people in New Mexico the first thing they ask is, ‘Am I in Arizona?’ ”
The squeeze José felt resonates loudly in Animas, N.M., a drip of life nestled among photogenic mountain ranges. Tighter security to the west in Arizona and the east in El Paso has rendered this area, known as the bootheel, a smuggler’s paradise.
Human “mules” carry marijuana and descend into the United States through mountains and valleys that make it difficult for border authorities to see and reach. Migrants have also blazed a trail, taking greater risks to reach a better life. Residents have felt neglected as bigger areas get border money.
“They need to tighten down the border,” said Kim Burton, 55, a lifelong Animas resident.
Standing outside his house, a light snowfall covering farmland that seems endless, Burton pointed to a broken barb wire fence and deep tire tracks in the field where he grows chili peppers. They were made when a van stuffed with marijuana careened off the road one night and rolled over.
“It’s not safe,” Burton said, adding he has had people come to his door in the middle of the night looking for food and water.
He has no use for the Washington talk about legalizing undocumented residents: “If they don’t have papers, they should send them home.”
With growing outrage over the situation, dozens of border patrol agents have been added in recent years to the region, where two decades ago 10 Border Patrol agents from nearby Lordsburg covered 4,380 square miles. In addition to more manpower, vehicle barriers have been installed to stop trucks from crossing over flat terrain. Last year, the Border Patrol opened an outpost in Animas Valley.
Locals agree immigrant crossings have slowed as a result but say drugs continue to flow — on foot, in trucks (those barriers are easily overcome with ramps) and in ultralight planes, like one that crashed in August 2011 carrying 134 pounds of marijuana.
“They’re not going to stop it. They’re not going to stop any of it,” fumed Tom Estrada, 47, a businessman who wears a Glock on his belt for protection.
Despite the new patrol outpost, which has living quarters, horse stables and a helicopter pad, Estrada said patrol agents still make regular trips to and from the main station in Lordsburg, an hour and a half away: “It’s one guy per vehicle back and forth and you see those vehicles 24 hours a day.”
“The border is that way,” Estrada said, pointing to the wide-open terrain to the south. “They should be defending the border there, not here. If they want to stop it, put the U.S. military out there and mine that son of a b----.”
Estrada’s edge softened as he walked into a muddy field toward an abandoned railroad bed. Immigrants hide from the Border Patrol out here, he said. “It’s sad because you’ll see adult tracks but also children’s. There’s no need for it.”
The government, he said, should make it harder for drug smugglers and easier for ordinary immigrants to enter legally: “All they want is a job to be able to eat every day. The U.S. should be saying, ‘Hey come and work.’ ”
Just over the New Mexico state line lies San Simon, a blink-and-miss-it town along I-10 where a Chevron station with a Quiznos is the center of life.
“Border security here is an absolute joke,” said Drew Haws, who works behind the counter and pumps gas. “We still have plenty of illegals coming across and there’s a lot more drug traffic. Once they close them down in one place they find a new route.”
The route often leads to San Simon. The U.S.-Mexico line is 60 miles away but immigrants are drawn to the interstate to catch a ride to their destination. Haws ducked under a thicket of mesquite bushes to show off a camp next to the gas station. Food containers, water bottles, backpacks and shoes with the seams busted out were scattered on the ground.
“The fences are a big-time waste of money,” Haws said, flicking his Sonoma cigarette to the ground. “They need more high-tech security and the government should legalize pot. It would cut down on all this traffic and the drug wars going on in Mexico.”
Two hours south in Douglas, a ranching town of 17,000 people, fences have been a high priority. Authorities recently replaced six miles of fence with 18-foot bollards and steel mesh.
Sharon Denham, who manages the Jon Ray Ranch just outside of Douglas, said the extra security has helped stop the flow of human and drug traffic, which has come frighteningly close. About three years ago, a man drove a pickup full of drugs through her pasture, breaking fences as he sped away.
A couple months later, Douglas rancher Robert Krentz was murdered after radioing his brother to say he was trying to help an immigrant. Denham, 74, started sleeping with a hunting rifle next to her bed.
“I was very apprehensive. I watched everything that moved.”
Today, the human and drug traffic has eased around her but pushed out to more remote areas, she said. Talk of building up the border more, however, worries her.
“Any more security here would completely ruin the economy of this town,” said Denham, who is selling fewer quarter horses to Mexican cattlemen, who face longer lines and fees to cross into the United States.
“We need to be smarter,” she said. “Let’s get out there in the bushes with them, see if we can beat them at their own game. We need guys like the Navy Seals out there.”
Krentz’s killer has not been caught, though authorities think he went into Mexico. The death sharply escalated tensions in Arizona about illegal immigration and helped lead to the state’s controversial 2010 enforcement law.
But talk about unchecked violence has not materialized. Last month the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report comparing 2004 to 2011 that showed violent crime dropped 33 percent among Arizona border counties. The drop was 22 percent in the state’s non-border counties.
For Sue Krentz, the fear remains real and unabated. She alternates between sorrow and anger when discussing what happened to her husband, and said she and others who fear for their safety along the border now have to watch as politicians contemplate legalizing undocumented residents.
“Every day we get beat up about it,” she said, “when all we are asking is to live free and safe on our property and in our homes.”
Is the border safe?
“The fence was up before they killed Rob,” she said, “so it didn’t work very well, did it?”