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Calls for increased security along the U.S.-Mexico border grew into a chorus in 2006. Congress approved construction of a 700-mile fence, the government awarded a contract for a virtual fence, and thousands of National Guard troops went to the border. NPR's Ted Robbins reports on what's happening at the border and what's the rhetoric.
TED ROBBINS: Four National Guardsmen from North Carolina chat in front of their tent while watching the Mexican border near Sasabe, Arizona. They have rifles but they are in plain sight atop a bluff fully exposed. Still, Specialist Jarami Lawrence(ph) says compared with the danger he faced in Iraq, this is relaxing.
Spc. JARAMI LAWRENCE (National Guard): Yes, very much. This is a day in the woods - or the desert.
ROBBINS: These soldiers are a part of Operation Jumpstart, the biggest single change in border security over the last year. Six thousand troops have been on the border since last July. They'll stay until the Border Patrol can replace them. Specialist Tracy Gadson(ph) and PFC Jason Kennedy say they know they're helping stop illegal crossers here.
Spc. TRACY GADSON (National Guard): We're here to be seen. They want them to see us to deter them.
Pfc. JASON KENNEDY (National Guard): Well, actually I had a group of eight run right nearby.
ROBBINS: What did you do?
Mr. KENNEDY: Yelled at them stop.
ROBBINS: The troops don't arrest crossers, they just report them to the Border Patrol. Border Patrol spokesman Jim Hawkins says apprehension figures - arrests - are down across the border from last year. He says that shows fewer people are trying to cross.
At the same time, he says agents are doing a better job stopping narcotics smugglers.
Agent JIM HAWKINS (Spokesman, U.S. Border Patrol): An alien can decided where they want to cross. And if it's too hard one place, they'll go try another place. The narcotics can only be crossed by a certain smuggler in one place. That narcotics smuggler can't shift to another territory because some other gang owns that territory.
And you're seeing increased violence in Mexico for that reason. They're running out of good smuggling routes.
ROBBINS: T.J. Bonner is president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents. He says the reported short-term success ignores history and reality.
Mr. T.J. BONNER (President, National Border Patrol Council): Twenty-five years ago, the Border Patrol was catching about a million people and doing it with far fewer agents than we have now. And we're still catching about a million people coming across the border illegally.
ROBBINS: Bonner says as long as work is available in the U.S. people will come. Yet everyone agrees it's tougher to get into the country. It costs more for a smuggler and physical infrastructure is increasing. In this heavily crossed area, vehicles filled with people or drugs used to drive through, ripping up the desert.
This summer, vehicle barriers went up. They're made of surplus steel railroad track welded into an X. Another section of heavy track is set across the top like a sawhorse. Agent Hawkins.
Mr. HAWKINS: It's very effective for us. The drive-throughs have virtually stopped in the areas that we put up this type of barrier.
ROBBINS: Congress authorized another kind of barrier this year - a 700-mile wall or fence. President Bush signed the bill but he has said he doesn't want the fence and money to build it has not been appropriated. So experts like Doris Meissner think it'll never get built.
Meissner is the former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now with the private nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. She says the Secure Fence Act was a political ploy before the November election.
Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Senior Fellow, Migration Policy Institute): The Congress knew it needed to do something on immigration, had failed to be able to do anything broadbased and needed to be able to say to the electorate, well, we did something on the issue you're most concerned about, which is border enforcement.
ROBBINS: All along, the Department of Homeland Security has said it wants a mix of physical barriers and technology. So this fall it awarded a $2 billion contract to the Boeing corporation to build a virtual fence. Early next year, Boeing says it will begin testing ground censors, cameras, infrared, X-ray and laser technology along a 28-mile stretch of border near Sasabe.
Eventually the plan is to use the technology on both the southern and the northern borders. But T.J. Bonner says technology that detects intruders isn't going to make the border secure.
Mr. BONNER: You can have the best technology in the world that alerts you to the presence of someone. But if you don't have agents in place to intercept them, what good is that?
ROBBINS: Plus an estimated 30 to 40 percent of everyone now in the country illegally entered through legal entry points then overstayed their visas. The government now has a system to screen for criminals or potential threats when people enter. But just last week it announced that the technology still doesn't exist to track if, when and where visitors leave.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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