While a specific metric to measure border security is still lacking, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says it's important to take a broad view of the border to judge the effectiveness of the government's efforts.
Napolitano, together with National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske and CBP Acting Commissioner Thomas Winkowski, toured the Douglas port of entry, met with local and state officials and spent time at the joint field command center in Tucson as part of a two-day visit in Texas and Arizona.
Napolitano visited the area in February but didn't have a press briefing. On Friday she briefly spoke with reporters after her trip and took a handful of questions.
Her visit comes after four senators of the so-called "Gang of Eight," including Arizona's John McCain and Jeff Flake, toured the border less than two weeks ago. They called for more technology and manpower to help secure the border - a contingent for offering a path to legal status to the estimated 11 million people who are here illegally.
Napolitano likened measuring a secure border to looking at a baseball player. There are different stats people can point to, depending on what they are looking for to judge the player.
"But when you line up all the stats in the Arizona-Mexico border, they are trending in the right direction," she said, and that includes lower crime rates at border cities, an increase in seizures of drugs and weapons.
Napolitano emphasized that the number of apprehensions of people crossing the border illegally is 80 percent lower from its peak in 2000.
Last fiscal year, the Border Patrol reported 364,768 apprehensions nationwide and 123,000 in the Tucson sector.
Apprehensions are often used to determine the flow of illegal immigration. The Border Patrol catches about 60 percent of those who try to cross, the Government Accountability Office estimates.
"As illegal immigration has dropped, agents and officers can focus on narco-traffickers and human smugglers," Napolitano said.
At the same time it's important to recognize the need for legal travel and trade, which the economy in the area is dependent upon.
"More than $20 billion in trade enter through the Arizona ports of entry alone," she said.
U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat who has been outspoken about the need to secure the border, was among those who met with Napolitano in Douglas in what he called a "healthy" discussion.
While most of the officials agree improvements have been made, there's more work to do on the border, he said.
"Some of my constituents feel unsafe and that they are essentially at the mercy of the drug cartels," he said, and that has to be stopped.
Barber calls for more boots on the ground closer to the border and a way to measure border security that includes using input from agents, ranchers and residents of border towns.
"Until we get credible measures, we are never going to agree on what a secured border is," he said.
There also can't be a discussion about the border without talking about the need to reform the immigration system, Napolitano said.
She listed the major points that President Obama and the senators working on a bill have emphasized as being essential to comprehensive immigration reform, including changes in the visa program and making sure employers do their part in hiring legal workers.
"The United States has always been a country of immigrants, we have thrived for being a country of immigrants," Napolitano said.
But "the system needs to be rebooted to match the needs of the 21st century and not the needs of the 20th century."
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
BY THE NUMBERS
The number of Border Patrol agents today compared to 9,821 in 2001.
The number of Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border, up from 9,159 in 2001.
Number of Customs and Border Protection officers, up from 17,279 in 2003.
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo