Douglas/Mexico Border SPOT

Photo: AZPM

The border between Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Mexico.

By David Martin Davies, Fronteras Desk

Clear disagreement over what a secure border looks like emerged at a congressional hearing Tuesday as the House of Representatives began looking at immigration reform.

Since 9/11 the number of border agents on the U.S.-Mexico border doubled. More than 700 miles of fence was built, and new technologies like surveillance cameras and unmanned drones were deployed.

With all that, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Michigan, asked at a hearing Tuesday: Is the border secure?

“Instead of discussing entirely how we’ve just grown the Border Patrol, CBP (Customs and Border Patrol), the Coast Guard or the different types of technologies that we’ve put on the border, I want to examine what the American people have gotten for the investment that we have made," Miller said.

Miller chaired the Homeland Security border and maritime subcommittee hearing and dismissed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s pronouncement that the border is more secure than ever.

Border Fence focus large

Photo: Michel Marizco, Fronteras Desk

Fencing along Mexican border west of Nogales with gate allowing rain runoff debris removal.

“That is not a substitute for hard, verifiable facts," Miller said.

Miller and other committee members, including Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., are pushing for a new metric to measure border security, called the Border Condition Index. Thompson said the nation needs to face facts that the border can never be 100 percent secure.

“What is an acceptable level of risk at our borders, while accepting that risk will never be zero?" Thompson said.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., urged the committee to move away from statistics about the border and focus on the safety of people who live along it.

“Until ranchers in Arizona who live along the border, until they feel safe enough for them to leave their home and leave their children to go into town and buy a gallon of milk or whatever they need and come back, the border isn’t secure," Duncan said.

But Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, quoted a new Government Accountability Office report that said not only is the southern border secure, it’s the safest segment of the nation.

“If you look at the border on whole from Brownsville to Laredo all the way to San Diego and you compare it to the rest of the U.S., we are safer than the country on whole," O'Rourke said. "And I would argue that the rancher going to get his milk in Arizona is far safer than the single mom leaving her apartment in Washington, D.C., Detroit or New Orleans.”

O’Rourke pushed forward the facts that with record deportations, record-low apprehensions, record money spent and the doubling of the Border Patrol force, the border is the most secure that it’s ever been.

Fronteras Desk is a collaboration of public broadcasting entities in Arizona, Caligornia, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, including Arizona Public Media.