PHOENIX (AP) -- The border with Mexico won't be secure until the people living near there feel safe from drug and human trafficking, said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer Tuesday after touring the region just hours before President Barack Obama was expected to champion his immigration plan in the State of the Union address.
Brewer said Afghanistan has safer borders and called for more fences, drones and law enforcement officials after touring the border near Tucson in an Arizona National Guard Blackhawk helicopter for nearly three hours. Her remarks came as national leaders insist the border must be secured before new rights are extended to illegal immigrants, but there is much disagreement over what exactly a secure border means.
"Anybody that would tell us that the border is secure is the people living on the border," Brewer said.
The number of people apprehended in Arizona for illegally crossing the border last year dropped to the lowest level in nearly 20 years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has pointed to historic numbers of Border Patrol agents across the Southwest, along with enhancements in technology such as drones and remote sensors aimed at making the region safer.
"I believe the border is secure. I believe the border's a safe border. That's not to say everything is 100 percent," Napolitano said last week on a stop in San Diego.
Brewer said Obama and other federal officials who claim the border is safe need to speak with people living in the region. Brewer said she and other border governors should be appointed to a proposed commission of border state lawmakers and citizens tasked with making recommendations on when border security metrics have been met. The commission is part of the Senate's tentative immigration plan.
Brewer also met Tuesday with ranchers from along the border and Border Patrol officials, and she compared her tour with a recent trip to Afghanistan. "They can secure the borders over there. Why can't we secure our border here?"
Southern Arizona ranchers frequently find guns, drugs and trash left on their property, Patrick Bray, executive director of the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, said after the meeting.
"We definitely don't feel the border is safe at this time," he said.
Last month, Obama unveiled his immigration proposal supporting a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake have also called for an immigration overhaul. The Senate plan seeks to make a pathway to citizenship conditional on a secure border.
Arizona became the busiest stretch of the border for drug and human smuggling after crackdowns in Texas and California in the 1990s. In 2005, agents in the Tucson sector apprehended more than 490,000 illegal immigrants - an all-time high. In the 2012 fiscal year in the same sector, about 120,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended.
Meanwhile, the amount of drugs seized in Arizona has soared with agents confiscating about 1 million pounds of marijuana in the Tucson sector last year, more than double the amount seized in 2005.
Brewer said illegal immigration fell because of Arizona's tough anti-immigration stance and a decline in economic opportunity.
"I truly believe that when the economy gets better, it will all start up again," she said.
Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff and Bob Christie contributed to this report.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (at)cristymsilva
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