US border spiraling out of control? Hardly, top border official says.

The commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection sought to counter the widespread perception that security is deteriorating along the US-Mexico border with reams of data.

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    Alan Bersin (r.) the US Customs and Border Protection commissioner, speaks to pedestrians waiting in line during a tour of the pedestrian lanes at the Paso Del Norte Bridge in El Paso, Texas, Jan. 5.
    Ruben R. Ramirez/The El Paso Times/AP/File
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The Obama administration is going on the offensive to counter public perception that the Southwest border is out of control.

By several important measures, the US-Mexico border is becoming significantly more secure, not less, said US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin at a news conference here Tuesday.

Border patrol arrests dropped from 616,000 to 212,000 between 2000 and 2010, and the number of border patrol agents on the Southwest frontier– 20,700 – is more than double what it was in 2004, he said. Moreover, Phoenix, San Diego, and El Paso, Texas, are among the safest cities in the country, he added.

The event marked an attempt to recast the narrative that dominates discussions about the border here, where fears about rampant illegal immigration and Mexico's drug war spilling into the US loom large. The killings of a border-area rancher in March and a border patrol agent in December have only reinforced those fears, and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer made the issue a part of November's election when she asserted that authorities had found decapitated bodies along the border – though she later said she misspoke.

“Increasingly along the border you’ve got these international criminal organizations that are operating, especially with what’s going on in Mexico – the government losing control of large sections of the country,” says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher immigration restrictions.

Generally speaking, such perceptions have been an impetus for anti-illegal immigration laws such as Arizona's SB 1070, which would have required law-enforcement officials to check the documents of suspected illegal immigrants, but is now tied up in court.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bersin was essentially trying to offer the Obama administration's version of setting the record straight – a difficult proposition, experts say.

“Impressions are often not founded in fact, so I’m not sure that just with facts the federal government can make change,” says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “I think it’s going to come down to changing the discourse on all sides of this debate.”

Bersin’s remarks in Tucson echoed those of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last week. During a speech at the University of Texas at El Paso, she hailed President Obama’s border strategy, known as the Southwest Border Initiative, as effective and said that the border is more secure than ever.

In Tucson, Bersin touted the accomplishments of a program involving about 60 local, state, tribal, and federal agencies called the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats, which combats the smuggling of drugs and people with the aid of Mexican authorities. The group was launched in late 2009.

Mexican authorities have become vital partners in the fight against drug and human trafficking, said Bersin and other border-enforcement officials.

“It’s cooperation at a deeper level,” said Matthew Allen, an official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona. “One of the things that’s always, frankly, colored the relationship between US law-enforcement agencies and our Mexican counterparts has always been corruption, and we have to find ways to work around that."

“Whether that means working with vetted units within the Mexican government, making sure that we can exchange information effectively," he added. "And part of it is just building trust.”

Bersin seems confident that law-enforcement success eventually will help turn negative opinion.

“Over time we will have the perception of all people that in fact the safety and the security that’s increasingly reflected in the statistics is experienced in their personal lives,” he said.

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