Ladd’s ranch in the southeastern corner of Arizona is dotted with cameras on stilts, and U.S. Border Patrol trucks cruise the range daily, scattering his Herefords and Angus. Beyond the wall, Mexican soldiers patrol in Humvees. Before it was erected in 2007, illegal migrants constantly camped in his bushes on their way north. These days, fewer make the attempt, but a more sophisticated and dangerous threat has replaced them.
“There’s less people but more drugs,” Ladd says. “The cartels control everything that crosses. The Border Patrol has a huge presence, but it’s not enough, and it’s not the answer. No matter what they say in Washington, the border is not secure.”
The issue of border security — hard to measure but easy to manipulate — has long been a sticking point in the debate over illegal immigration. The Obama administration, hoping to win congressional support for an overhaul of immigration law, increased spending on customs and border enforcement to a record $12 billion in 2012, and it claims to have reduced infiltration of the 2,000-mile U.S.-
Mexico border to its lowest level in decades.
But now, with the across-the-board sequester cuts expected to take a $500 million bite out of the immigration enforcement budget and cut the equivalent of 5,000 jobs from a Border Patrol force of 21,000 agents, new concerns over border violence and drug smuggling are being raised by administration critics, immigration officers and some border-area residents.
Back at center of debate
Arizona, a Republican-led border state, has long played an outsize role in the immigration wars. It enacted the nation’s toughest law against illegal immigrants in 2010, has spawned vigilante border-watch groups and has elected officials such as Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, icons of a national movement to seal the border and fight “amnesty” for the undocumented.
Today, as the Obama administration seeks lawmakers’ backing for steps that would legalize millions of undocumented residents, Arizona’s conservative forces are rallying for another fight. This time, they have new ammunition from sequester cutbacks and reports of Mexican drug gangs muscling in on what was once a routine cat-and-mouse game between federal agents and poor migrants.
The new battle pits Brewer against another high-profile Arizona figure, Democratic former governor Janet Napolitano, now U.S. secretary of homeland security. Napolitano insists that the U.S.-Mexico border remains more secure than it has been in years, even as she warned that Border Patrol cuts would leave fewer agents to cover rugged rural areas where most illegal crossings take place. Meanwhile, Brewer has accused the White House of using the sequester for political gain at the expense of public safety.