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Illegal immigrants gravitate toward Arizona border

On a typical day, nearly 1 million people cross from Mexico into the United States, according to U.S. government figures. About 270,000 vehicles cross the Southwest border every 24 hours, along with about 57,000 truck, rail and sea containers. Sixty percent of the Mexican fruit and vegetables entering the United States comes through Nogales.

"This is our busy time of year," said Robert L. Boatright, deputy chief of the Tucson Sector, talking about illegal immigrants, not produce. He said it would be impossible to "seal the border," as some critics demand. "The number of agents it would take 24-7 would be incredible."

Border agents have "close to daily" encounters with smugglers with guns, most linked to drug smuggling, he said. In announcing the National Guard deployment, which echoes earlier approaches, Obama emphasized the need to slow the drugs flowing north and the guns and cash heading south to the cartels waging war on Mexican state authority.

By the same token, the number of captured border crossers -- an indication of the volume of people who are getting though illegally -- dropped 41 percent between 2005 and 2009. The border is at "an unprecedented state of control," Boatright said. "I know that's hard to believe with what you see and read right now."

Although the flow of drugs appears to be rising, Kirkham said, Nogales's 64 police officers are not seeing a spillover of violence from Mexico. Property crimes have been static, and Nogales has had just one homicide in the past three years. "People that do cross here, they want to get out of this area as quickly and quietly as possible," he said.

So far, 210 miles of the 262-mile Tucson Sector border is fenced. McCain, facing GOP primary challenger J.D. Hayworth, a border hawk, made waves by declaring in a campaign advertisement filmed in Nogales: "Complete the danged fence."

Boatright said the rough terrain makes finishing the fence impossible or unnecessary.

"We're looking at a very small portion that we need to address," Boatright said. "I'm talking two or three miles."

McCain is seeking 6,000 more National Guard soldiers, including 3,000 in Arizona. Yet in Nogales, Gustavo Lozano, an activist who favors comprehensive reform, believes that no measures now in the pipeline will stop illegal immigration.

"Whatever fear they build up, whatever troops come to the border," Lozano said, "people are still going to cross."

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