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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Status At The United States-Mexico Border

Laura J. Nelson |
January 24, 2011 | 2:48 a.m. PST

Staff reporter

The United States-Mexico border stretches on for nearly 2,000 lonely miles, from the sprawling outskirts of San Diego to the rippling blue-green of the Gulf of Mexico.

Although some of the funding and legislation related to that same border are new, the issues are age-old and tender: for decades, divided Congresses have played tug-of-war over funding, legislation and policy.  

Tomorrow, President Obama's summary of his last year in office should touch on the millions poured into immigration reform and border security. The government currently funnels $55 million into protecting those porous 1,969 miles.

Homeland security officials released information Friday showing the number of border patrol agents has gone up 250 percent – from 10,000 in 2004 to 20,500 today – and the number of apprehensions has decreased.  

In San Diego during the 2009 fiscal year, CBP agents apprended 119,000 illegal immigrants. That number dropped in 2010 to 6,800, the Department of Homeland Security said. 

The government organizations charged with protecting the California-Mexico border say they're happy with those figures, but would like to see more resources come their way. 

"Is there room for improvement?" said Steven Pitts, a spokesman for the San Diego Public Affairs Office for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. "There's always room for improvement."

The border has also been smeared across the news recently following the $1-billion "virtual fence" project, created in 2007 as a compromise between the Bush administration and congressional Democrats . The "fence" was developed as a trade-off for a legal path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. But five years later, not long after Congress shelved the DREAM Act, Obama scrapped the program with only 53 miles of sensors, cameras, radar and towers in place. 

Strengthening the borders is an ongoing effort, a combination of manpower, funding and technology, Pitts said. Infrastructure – meaning fencing, lighting, roads and other permanent installations – is key. 

"We've seen an increase in our security along the land border," Pitts said. "Are there people who attempt to scale that fence? People who do try. But the number is miniscule." 

This year, Obama also signed the $600-million Southwest Border Security Bill, which beefs up technology and law enforcement at the southern border. 

About 250 members of the California National Guard now work with the U.S. Border Patrol, helping the short-staffed organization with border surveillance through night vision and other technology, Pitts said. The national guard draw-out is scheduled to being in May and finish in August, when more border patrol agents finish their academy training. 

The other issue flaring along the border is finding and stopping drug smuggling tunnels. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says tunnels have increased drastically since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a military crackdown on the country's drug cartels. More than 34,000 have died in four years, and 2010 was the bloodiest year yet, leaving 15,273 dead. 

"We utilize a lot of high-tech surveillance and scientific equipment, but old-fashioned detective work is still the way we become aware of tunneling," said Virginia Kice, ICE's Western Regional Communications Director.  

The growing violence in Mexico, especially near the U.S.-Mexico border, has been a growing cause of concern for the Obama administration.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Mexico today, talking anti-drug war strategy with Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa. The two are expected to discuss collaboration on tackling the drug violence, as well as financial development along the border.

For more from Neon Tommy's special series examining Obama at the midpoint of his first term, click here.

To reach staff reporter Laura J. Nelson, click here. Follow her on Twitter: @laura_nelson



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