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Is US-Mexico border secure enough? Immigration reform could hinge on answer.

What did the post-9/11 border patrol surge of manpower and equipment achieve? Understanding its successes and failures could be crucial to the new immigration reform effort.

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In 2003, the size of the border patrol stood at 10,717 agents. In 2012, the number totaled 21,394, with 18,516 stationed along a Southwest border reinforced with state-of-the-art technology that includes ground sensors, hand-held thermal-imaging equipment, surveillance cameras, and predator drones. During that time, the border patrol budget increased from $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion, according to agency data.

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Those increases have been supplemented by other initiatives. In 2006, Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which authorized 700 miles of fencing – as well as infrastructure such as vehicle barriers, roads, and checkpoints – along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. The same year, the Bush administration endorsed plans for a "virtual fence" of surveillance equipment to run almost the entire length of the border.

The Secure Fence Act aimed to achieve "operational control" over the entire border, defining the phrase as "the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband."

That, experts say, was an unrealistic expectation. There will never be a secure border by that definition, says Donald Kerwin, executive director at the Center for Migration Studies, which defends migrants' rights.

Even the Berlin Wall failed by that measure, he notes. "At that point they were shooting at unauthorized crossers," he says. "Even on a heavily fortified, militarized 37-mile wall, people were crossing. To think that nobody will cross illegally over a 2,000-mile border is fanciful."

In 2010, that realization – together with rising costs and technological challenges – led the Obama administration to kill the virtual fence.

Signs of success

That doesn't mean the border surge was a failure, though.

Border patrol officials say a historic decline in total apprehensions nationwide – from a peak of 1.6 million in 2006 to 356,873 in 2012 – is a sign of success. As further proof that the border is under control, the agency touts its record of intercepting a massive amount of smuggled drugs, and offers FBI statistics showing that crime is lower in border areas than in some parts of the US interior.

"The high-speed chases, the rollovers, the chaos that comes with a border out of control, that is no longer the norm," said Manuel Padilla, acting chief of the border patrol's Tucson sector, at a recent meeting. "That is no longer there."

The soft US economy has been a significant contributor to the drop in illegal entries – fewer jobs attract fewer immigrants. But other experts agree that the security surge has played a role in bringing apprehensions down to levels last seen in the early 1970s.

"The investments were really significant, and they had an effect," says Thad Bingel, former chief of staff for Customs and Border Protection in the Bush administration and a founding partner of Command Consulting Group, a security consultancy in Washington, D.C.

"It's much more difficult to cross the border in Arizona or California or Texas today than it was in 2005, and your chances of getting caught are much higher," he adds.

But that progress has come at a cost, some say. Congress's response to the 9/11 attacks not only changed the size of the border patrol but also its purpose. In 2003, when the border patrol became part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), its mission was expanded to prioritize capturing terrorists and weapons of terror at the border.

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