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Despite safer border cities, undocumented immigrants flow through rural areas

As the national debate over comprehensive immigration reform plays out, the question looms: just how secure is the U.S. border with Mexico? NBC's Mark Potter reports.

By Mark Potter, Correspondent, NBC News

TUCSON, ARIZ. – On a helicopter inspection tour above the rugged mountains and vast desert in southern Arizona, Commander Jeffrey Self of U.S. Customs and Border Protection reflected on how much security has improved along the U.S.-Mexican border during his long career.

"After the vehicle barriers were built, and with the checkpoints going up, we're experiencing zero [undocumented immigrant] drive-throughs in an area where we were having 30, 40, 50 in a 24-hour period," he said, pointing to miles of vehicle barriers placed in the desert along the frontier.

During an aerial tour of the Arizona border, Commander Jeffrey Self, U.S. Border Patrol, told NBC's Mark Potter as border security has increased, the apprehensions of immigrants crossing the border illegally has dropped dramatically.

U.S. Border Patrol has greatly reduced the number of cars and trucks loaded with people and drugs driving across the desert from Mexico into the United States. That, Self explained, has freed agents to focus their attention on immigrant and drug smugglers who walk across the border.  In the meantime, he added, authorities have also greatly reduced the number of hiking trails used by smugglers.

"In Arizona we have been very successful in increasing border security," Self said. "Over the course of many years now we've been resourced with tactical infrastructure, technology and personnel and they've been employed in a fashion that's gotten us greater results."

While conceding there are still many areas where drug and immigrant smugglers cross illegally into the U.S. -- often on private ranch land -- Self argued the threat has decreased dramatically and will continue to do so.

Mark Potter/NBC News

The U.S. border vehicle barrier used by authorities to stop trucks and cars from crossing the Mexican border in southern Arizona.

As the national debate over comprehensive immigration reform plays out, the question looms: just how secure is the U.S. border with Mexico? The answer appears to be mixed, with definite improvements nationwide and a downward trend in illegal immigration in most places – especially in the cities. But there are some areas, in rural Arizona and Texas, where residents insist the border is neither secure nor safe.

Gary Thrasher, a veterinarian and rancher in southern Arizona near Bisbee, says the rural border area where he works is actually less safe now than it was years ago, because of an increase in the number of armed drug and immigrant smugglers.

When the federal government increased security in the border cities, he said, it had the negative effect of forcing the smugglers to move to the large rural areas.

"The border statistically is securer than ever.  That means nothing,” he said.  “That's like saying we fixed this whole bucket, except for this hole down here.  You know it's still not going to hold water."

U.S. officials: look to the numbers 

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano frequently travels to the Southwest border and has made appearances before Congress where she has touted the recent improvements in border security and argued for passage of a comprehensive immigration bill.

"Fewer people are trying to emigrate illegally into this country than in four decades,” she testified before a U.S. Senate committee earlier this year. “What I know is that apprehensions are low, because attempts are low. Drug seizures, contraband seizures, all the numbers that need to be up are up."

Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, says immigration reform must "be dealt with this year."

In the year 2000, agents along the length of the Southwest border reported detaining 1,643,679 immigrants for allegedly entering the country without proper documentation.  Twelve years later, in 2012, that number had plummeted to 356,873, a decrease of 78 percent.

"San Diego and the Mexican border used to be the most lawless, violent places across the face of the earth with thousands of cross-border migrants on a given day,” said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “We put in triple fencing and adequate Border Patrol and Coast Guard and it stopped."

Ranchers: rural border areas not secure

Critics of the administration's position on border security, however, say that while the overall apprehension numbers are down, they don't fully reflect the reality in areas where smugglers and immigrants still routinely make the illegal crossing into the United States from Mexico.

NBC News

An NBC hidden camera captures footage of border-crossers hiking across private U.S. ranch land in southern Arizona during late March.

On a small ranch near the border in southwestern Arizona, a mother of several children spoke under the condition of anonymity.  She fears what she described as an increase in drug and immigrant smugglers crossing her land by day and night.

"You're still having to pack a gun everywhere with you and make sure your kids can't go outside to play unless you are watching them." she said.  "The border is not secure. The Border Patrol doesn't have a very strong presence out here."

Hidden cameras placed by NBC News on private land show smugglers carrying loads of marijuana in broad daylight.

Texas police: a rise in immigrant smuggling

In the small town of San Juan, Texas, a few miles north of the Mexican border, Police Chief Juan Gonzalez toured some of the human stash houses his officers recently uncovered. They had been used to hide immigrants from all over the world who were smuggled across the border into the United States.

Gonzalez says his department has never dealt with as many undocumented immigrants as it encounters now. 

"In the past three years we've seen an increase.  And it's not a steady increase, it's a massive increase," he said.  "Too many people are getting through.  We've got too many holes in the border and we don't have enough manpower to make sure we secure the border."

About 75 miles north of the border, in Falfurrias, Texas, Benny Martinez, the chief deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff's Office, says his area is also deeply affected by a recent rise in illegal immigration. 

“The trending is going up,” he said.  “It hasn’t gone down at all, not here.”

Captain Juan Gonzales, Chief of the San Juan Texas police department, says he doesn't have the resources or staff to deal with the number of undocumented immigrants who cross the border.  

Last year, officials and ranchers there found the bodies of 129 immigrants who died in the harsh terrain, presumably after crossing the border illegally.  Dozens are still unidentified and are buried in a local cemetery.  Some of the metal markers on the graves read, "Unknown Female" and "Unknown Remains."  One says, simply, "Bones."

Martinez does not believe the U.S.-Mexican border is at all secure in South Texas, given the rise in illegal immigration in Brooks County. 

"It's steady and I don't think it's going to go down, it's not going to happen anytime soon," he said.

PHOTOS: Border patrol faces surge in rural Texas border crossings

Ranchers like Linda Vickers, who lives just north of a Border Patrol highway checkpoint near Falfurrias, said she regularly sees, and often photographs, illegal immigrants cutting across her land as they try to evade the agents. 

“I’m seeing groups of 10, groups of 20 and I’m seeing them more often,” she said.

When asked about Obama administration claims that the border is more secure now, Vickers said that while it appears to be true elsewhere in the country, it’s not the case where she lives. 

“In the state of Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, the border is not secure and I don’t think you’ll find a person, a real person, to say it’s secure,” she said.

Despite a dramatic drop in illegal immigration nationwide, South Texas, along the Rio Grande, is now seeing a rise in immigrants crossing the Mexican border, as many flee the poverty and violence in Central America. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

Border patrol: South Texas a problem area

In South Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley sector, immigrant apprehensions rose 65 percent from the years 2011 to 2012 -- from 59,243 to 97,762, according to U.S. Border Patrol -- bucking the national trend of falling immigration numbers. 

This year, statistics reveal the Rio Grande Valley apprehension numbers have climbed even further, rising 55 percent compared to this time in 2012. 

Federal agents believe it reflects a recent increase in people fleeing the poverty, drug gangs and violence in Central America.

Privately, some agents say that, despite their great success in making more apprehensions, thousands of immigrants crossing the border illegally in South Texas still slip past them.

A majority of people involved in the security debate agree that most of the U.S. cities along the border are now much safer than they used to be and have much lower crime rates, thanks to high fences, increased monitoring technology and thousands of Border Patrol and other federal agents deployed there.  

But McCaffrey says U.S. officials need to do more for the rural areas.

“You have to give the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection the dollars and the technology to protect the American frontier,” he said.  “We’ve got to do it.  We owe it to the American people.”

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