US & World

How Secure Is The Border? Depends Whom You Ask

Senate Republicans are trying to amend a bill funding U.S. troops at war to include money for cracking down on the U.S.-Mexico border. In response, the White House has promised more National Guard troops and funding for the border. But politics, more than national security concerns, may be driving the one-upmanship.

Bills funding U.S. troops at war are always considered must-pass legislation. And that's why Senate Republicans are trying to amend a spending measure for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to include funds for one of their top priorities: cracking down on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The White House responded Tuesday by promising more National Guard troops and money for the border.

But it may be that politics, more than national security concerns, are driving the border one-upmanship.

Offering Amendments

To hear Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn tell it, things are as bad as they've ever been along his state's southern border.

"There's no doubt that there is fear and frustration all along the border. Fear that the border violence that is raging just south is going to spill over into the United States," he said.

Cornyn is seeking $2 billion in additional funds for the border -- for everything from unmanned aerial vehicles to more beds for detention facilities. His GOP colleague from Arizona, John McCain, wants 6,000 more National Guard troops deployed to the border -- five times the number the Obama administration is promising.

"I hope that my colleagues appreciate the extent of the violence on the Mexican border, and the dramatic increase in that violence that's taken place over the last several years," he said.

What McCain did not say was that there are nearly seven times more Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border today than there were six years ago.

How Bad Is It Really?

At a Senate hearing last month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- previously Arizona's governor -- rejected Sen. Lindsey Graham's assertion that the border is broken and a war is going on there.

"I've walked that border. I've ridden that border. I've flown it. I've driven it. I know that border, I think, as well as anyone," she said. When asked if it's secure, she responded, "I will tell you it is as secure now as it has ever been."

Graham, a South Carolina Republican, warned Napolitano that until the border is brought under control, it will be impossible to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul in Congress.

But some experts question whether things are as bad along the border as Graham and other Republicans say they are.

Steven Atkiss, who was chief of staff at Customs and Border Protection during George W. Bush's administration, said he would agree with Napolitano's assertion "that the border security infrastructure and our ability to defend that border is better than it's ever been."

"Is the violence between the narco-traffickers on the Mexican side having an impact on the U.S.? Yes," he said. "Are we at the point of Armageddon here on the Southwest border where all of our border security resources have melted down? No."

'Obviously A Political Response'

The reality, says congressional expert Gary Jacobson at the University of California, San Diego is that beefing up the border has become a prerequisite for revamping immigration laws.

"And in that sense, you can take it as ... a sincere attempt to move forward on this, but it's also obviously a political response to a problem," he said.

Immigrant advocates say they are deeply disappointed that President Obama seems to be seeking to placate the border-security-first crowd.

"If you are going to do enforcement first, what's the timeline?" asked Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza. "When will we see enough enforcement so that we can see some of the additional elements that we know are going to be necessary to truly resolve this issue?"

Murguia fears that day may never come if everything depends on securing the border. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit