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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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Bringing the agency under DHS brought cohesiveness to the border effort, Mr. Bingel says. But "it did change the mind-set, and it did change the focus and the tools that were applied."

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Joe Dassaro, a former border patrol agent, says the move made the agency's mission diffuse. "The agency was receiving mixed signals," he recalls. Agents were being told, "your only mission is to apprehend terrorists."

Too much, too fast?

The sheer speed of the buildup also had negative consequences, Mr. Dassaro says. Agents were hired so quickly that training standards weakened. He became involved in his local union, and the more he studied the history of immigration policy, the more disillusioned he became about how it was being carried out. He left the agency in 2005.

In recent years, the border patrol has been under fire for excessive use of force, shootings involving agents, and corruption among its ranks. While those problems are "relatively few," says Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, they could be an outgrowth of claims of discrimination in border communities. "People who look like they're from Latin America are much more likely to face the wrath of the border patrol," he says.

There have been signs of progress. In El Paso, Texas, the Border Network for Human Rights reached out to the border patrol after people felt they were targets "because of the way they looked and the way they dressed." Complaints dropped significantly.

"What we did here is considered a success because the community and the border patrol worked together," says Fernando Garcia, the group's executive director.

Rise of people-smuggling

The buildup also has changed how migrants cross the border. As the agency has made the trek north more difficult, more people have started crossing through remote regions of the desert and mountainous terrain. In Arizona alone, more than 2,400 people have died since 2000, according to Tucson human rights groups.

"The discussion of the deaths is not even included in border security, and it should be," says Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, an immigrants rights activist.

The tightening of the border has also empowered organized crime to branch into the increasingly lucrative business of people-smuggling.

"They take $1,000, $2,000, $3,000 a pop for each migrant that they smuggle into the country, often in hideously dangerous conditions," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, in a teleconference.

Yesenia Mercado, who was deported through Nogales last month, says smugglers charged her $3,800 to guide her across the border – an amount relatives promised to pay once she made it to Los Angeles. She intends to cross again to join her US-born children, who stayed in California when she visited family in Mexico. "It's not as easy to get across as it once was," she says.

Still, a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that only 873 of the nearly 2,000 miles of the Southwest border were under "operational control." Some 129 of those miles were under "full control" with the remainder "managed."

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