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Inside Immigration Reform: Securing the U.S.- Mexico Border

May 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Nogales, Ariz., a long stretch of fencing separates the residents there from people just across the border in Nogales, Mexico. One of the busiest ports of entry between the two countries, it is case in point critical to the debate over immigration reform. Ray Suarez holds that conversation with two law enforcement officials.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next, we take a look at the issue of border security, as part of our ongoing series “Inside Immigration Reform.”

And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s critical to the debate over immigration reform: security along the United States’ nearly-2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Nogales, Ariz., is a case in point. A long stretch of fencing separates the 20,000 residents there from more than 200,000 people just across the border in Nogales, Mexico. It’s one of the busiest ports of entry between the two countries, and U.S. Border Patrol agents process millions of legal crossings each year.

But more than 124,000 people were caught crossing illegally last year. Millions more have not been caught over the years. And Republicans say they shouldn’t be given a path to citizenship until the border is secured.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona helped author the immigration bill now headed to the Senate.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: We have confronted the reality of de facto amnesty for the 11 million or more people who came here illegally by proposing a lengthy path to citizenship that doesn’t place lawful immigrants at a disadvantage and it — and is contingent on doing everything possible to make our border secure and discourage future waves of illegal immigration.

RAY SUAREZ: On the other hand, many Democrats argue the border has never been safer. They point to nearly 20,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents patrolling the boundary and to a network of cameras, sensors, drones and some 700 miles of fencing. President Obama made that point on his visit to Mexico earlier this month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think it’s important for everybody to remember that our shared border is more secure than it’s been in years. Illegal immigration attempts into the United States are near their lowest level in decades.

RAY SUAREZ: Indeed, some 1.6 million people were apprehended on the southwest border back in 2000, while in 2012, the number fell to just over 350,000.

So, how secure is the border?

For that, we get two different views from law enforcement leaders whose counties sit directly on the U.S. border with Mexico. Tony Estrada is the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, Ariz. And Captain Robert Wilson is a sheriff’s deputy in Hudspeth County, Texas.

And, gentlemen, a lot of attention’s been paid to border security in the dozen years since 9/11. As we’re approaching a national debate over immigration reform, can you, Sheriff Estrada, say the say the border is more secure than it used to be?

SHERIFF TONY ESTRADA, Santa Cruz County, Ariz.: You know, I can definitely say that, because I have been there 45 years along the border with Mexico, and we have had more resources, more technology, more boots on the ground.

It just has improved tremendously. The urban area, we consider Nogales and Santa Cruz County as pretty secure. But it’s a challenge. The border with Mexico continues to be a major challenge that we’re going to have for a long time.

RAY SUAREZ: Capt. Wilson, same question. Is the border more secure?

CAPT. ROBERT WILSON, Hudspeth County, Texas, Sheriff’s Deputy: Well, I agree with the sheriff that there has been more resources thrown at the border, and maybe in that area.

But, in Hudspeth County, Texas, we have 99 miles of river border with Mexico, and the border is not secure in that area. We still have continued cartel activity across the river. We still have folks from our communities being executed, taken from Texas and executed in Mexico. And the immigration problem, the people coming over is the same. It hasn’t diminished.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me follow up with you, Capt. Wilson. Is it possible — you mentioned 99 miles of river frontier with another country — is it possible, is it affordable to seal Mexico off from the United States in those places to control cross-border movements?

ROBERT WILSON: I don’t believe it’s feasible to completely seal the border with Mexico. And I don’t believe you would want to. I mean, there’s a good relationship with that government. There’s commerce and trade, and I think that needs to continue.

RAY SUAREZ: So what do you need that you don’t have?

ROBERT WILSON: I believe that we need more people, more patrols from U.S. Border Patrol. They’re doing what they can with what they have. And maybe policies out of Washington concerning the border might need to be looked at.

RAY SUAREZ: Sheriff Estrada, you heard Capt. Wilson talking about a mostly rural area. Nogales is one of the major crossings in your part of the country. How are the problems different there?

TONY ESTRADA: Well, I guess we have a rugged, remote terrain, you know, valleys, canyons that, obviously, are very attractive for these organizations to move drugs and people.

So, we have always had that challenge of having to deal with those remote areas where you actually have very little ways of detecting that type of activity and that type of movement. We’re not seeing the violence, obviously, that the sheriff — or the captain mentioned that he’s having in his area.

And I think that’s very important to recognize that and be mindful that the dynamics change tremendously from border to border.

RAY SUAREZ: And when we look at a place like Nogales, would we, if we were to visit the border today, see more in the way of actual physical barriers so that people can’t cross on foot as easily any longer?

TONY ESTRADA: Oh, definitely. They have more barriers, obviously more walls, more sensors, more floodlights, a lot more technology that has been applied along the border, which makes it more and more difficult.

But you still have the major thoroughfare from Sonora that connects to the major highways here in Arizona and the major hubs of Tucson and Phoenix. So, this is a major corridor for drugs and people. It’s going to continue. It’s going to continue. They’re going to find ways.

We have had tunnels. Since 1995, about 100 drug tunnels have been discovered. So, people will come through the ports either making false claims, false documents, they have overstayed with their visa, they will go under the fence, over the fence, around the fence. So it just doesn’t stop. So, the border is secure in a certain way, but you can’t have perfect security. That’s not attainable.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Capt. Wilson mention that he just needs more people. What do you need?

TONY ESTRADA: Well, definitely.

We’re a small department with a small budget, with major challenges along the border. Obviously, we need more funding, and we’re getting some more funding from the federal government. Department of Homeland Security is providing that Stonegarden funds, which puts extra people out there to hot spots in Santa Cruz County, which is partnering with Border Patrol and very helpful not only to help them out, but to provide more security for the residents and the visitors of Santa Cruz County.

RAY SUAREZ: Capt. Wilson, does the immigration bill that is currently working its way through Congress hold any promise to get you closer to your goals in securing the border?

ROBERT WILSON: No, I don’t believe so.

Even if this immigration bill comes — is passed and comes to light, I believe that they’re still going to continue to come across the border in Hudspeth County, and all along Texas and the United States, and the cartels and their activity with drug smuggling and the things that they do, that’s not going to stop that.

RAY SUAREZ: And how about you, Sheriff Estrada? Does the current proposed immigration bill now in the Senate hold any promise and any help for Santa Cruz County?

TONY ESTRADA: I think it will. I think it will make a difference.

There are still some triggers obviously that are going to make a difference to make sure that we don’t repeat the mistake that we made in the 1980s with the amnesty at that time. But we need to continue to focus and be mindful and understand that it is a border. It’s a robust border. It’s an active border. It’s a dynamic border.

And we’re going to continue to have those issues. If the United States consumes over 50 percent of the world’s drugs, then we have an issue with consumption here. If we also have poverty along the world, there’s going to be people that are going to keep coming in. That’s the reality of the whole thing. Irregardless of immigration reform, which will be a good step forward, it’s not going to eliminate the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Capt. Wilson, are you being asked to do too much? Is the federal government taking enough of the burden for watching such a big chunk of frontier off of your shoulder and your department’s shoulders?

ROBERT WILSON: Well, Hudspeth County is 5,000 square miles.

We have 10 regular deputies to work this problem. They use overtime from the state. We call it “Border Star.” Our guys are out there all the time after their shift. I think the Border Patrol is doing — doing what they can do with what they’re allowed to do. And that basically — I don’t think you could put enough guys in these places to curb all of the drug trafficking and immigration problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Sheriff Tony Estrada, Capt. Robert Wilson, gentlemen, thank you both.

TONY ESTRADA: Thank you.