ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When President Obama announced sweeping changes to the immigration system, this was the first thing on his list.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We'll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over.
SHAPIRO: The president has not specified what exactly he plans to do to beef up the Southwest border. We've been here before. Lots of elected officials have tried. But as NPR's John Burnett reports, border security remains an elusive goal.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: According to figures compiled last year by the Migration Policy Institute, Washington spends $18 billion a year on border enforcement. That's more than the budgets of the FBI, DEA, ATF, Secret Service and Federal Marshals combined. With more than 60,000 employees, Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, is the largest law enforcement agency in the nation. A Senate bill that did not pass last year, but is hailed by the Obama administration, calls for adding 20,000 new border patrol agents. That would nearly double a force that has already doubled in size in the last decade. Perhaps the question is - how much is enough?
JOSE RODRIGUEZ: When is the border secure? What are your metrics? Nobody seems to be able to come up with any kind of sensible response to when they would consider the border secure.
BURNETT: Texas State Senator Jose Rodriguez represents a district in Far West Texas that has more than 500 miles of international border. By some measures, the border is safer. As the president pointed out, in the last six years, illegal border crossings have been cut by half and overall the number of people trying to jump the border is at its lowest level since the 1970s.
Yet, as the Government Accountability Office reported in 2011, rural areas of the border in South Texas have less operational control than stretches of the West Desert. Ralph Basham was CBP commissioner from 2006 to 2009, when George W. Bush first doubled the size of the border patrol. Basham is now with the Command Consulting Group in Washington. He thinks Congress is not really willing to fund all that new manpower.
RALPH BASHAM: You just can't come in and say, OK, let's put another 20,000 agents on the border and not be in it for the long term. And I think that's been part of the problem.
BURNETT: Do more uniforms on the border make a difference? Rick Perry turned the Rio Grande Valley into a test case this year. The Texas governor deployed state troopers and a thousand National Guard to the border to shore up enforcement at a time when he says federal border officers were distracted by all the unaccompanied children coming across. Perry's Department of Public Safety credits the surge of state resources for sharply lower seizures of marijuana, cocaine and meth at the border. One press release said state troopers had, quote, "taken back the border."
Democrat critics say Perry ordered the buildup, which is costing Texas taxpayers $600,000 a day, because he is considering running for the White House. He denies the charge. For his part, Sheriff Eddie Guerra, whose Hidalgo County is Ground Zero for the surge, believes having more uniformed troops and officers does reduce drug trafficking across the border.
EDDIE GUERRA: Yes, the National Guard has had some affect, because they're a deterrent just because of their presence on the border.
BURNETT: But Michael Fisher, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, cautions that it's hard to pinpoint a single reason why crime statistics change. He allows that more federal, state and National Guard presence on the Rio Grande in recent months may be contributing to declining criminal activity. But Fisher also credits the addition of five aerostat balloons tethered high above the Texas border. They're outfitted with high-tech detection equipment that can peer into Mexico. He says when the eyes in the sky see smugglers heading toward the river, U.S. agents notify their federal counterparts in Mexico who make the arrest.
MICHAEL FISHER: When you're looking at - so there's the reduction in seizures - what is transpiring now, which hasn't happened in previous years, is those seizures are being made in Mexico and they're not crossing into the United States.
BURNETT: The Border Patrol chief says that more boots on the ground is not the whole answer to securing the international divide. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.