NOGALES, Ariz. -- Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano toured the Arizona-Mexico border Tuesday. She met with customs officials and Arizona lawmakers near Nogales. The tour is yet another indication of how critical Arizona is to the immigration debate, which is heating up in Washington.
"I can safely say doing this job for 45 years the border is safer. It is safer than ever before," Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said. “The rhetoric about the violence on the border… we're not dodging bullets down here.”
The sheriff says things started to turn around in the mid-1990s.
“Lately we are very secure, very safe, very quiet,” Estrada said. “A lot of that has to do with the resources applied here along border in Santa Cruz.”
Since 2004, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled to 21,300. Attempts to cross the border illegally, as measured by U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions, totaled 365,000 nationwide in fiscal year 2012. That’s nearly a 50-percent decrease since 2008 and a 78-percent decrease from their peak in 2000.
Napolitano took an aerial tour of the border and visited the Mariposa Land Port of Entry Tuesday. That is one of the busiest land ports in the country. Her tour was closed to the media but this isn't Napolitano's first trip to the U.S. border this month. She made similar trips to El Paso and San Diego on the heels of the State of the Union address and President Barack Obama's push for comprehensive immigration reform, something many southern Arizonans believe is long overdue.
“I think the jobs and a path to citizenship are separate from securing border first because we can't even define what a secure border is and the other issue of reform is important,” Sally Lockwood said.
“I'm not worried about illegals; the problem is the people who hire them,” James Dreus said.
Still, Estrada admits something more needs to be done to secure the border.
“Since we have a lot of canyons, mountains and hills around the rural areas, obviously that presents opportunities for people to come over illegally,” he said.
The ranchers will tell you they often encounter illegal border-crossers. Gov. Jan Brewer wants to see more done to protect those families.
"I believe the border will be secure when I can go down there and speak to the ranchers and the ranchers will tell us they feel the border is secure and we see more boots on the ground," she said.