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.