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Is US-Mexico border secure enough? Immigration reform could hinge on answer.

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Border patrol officials say a historic decline in total apprehensions nationwide – from a peak of 1.6 million in 2006 to 356,873 in 2012 – is a sign of success. As further proof that the border is under control, the agency touts its record of intercepting a massive amount of smuggled drugs, and offers FBI statistics showing that crime is lower in border areas than in some parts of the US interior.

"The high-speed chases, the rollovers, the chaos that comes with a border out of control, that is no longer the norm," said Manuel Padilla, acting chief of the border patrol's Tucson sector, at a recent meeting. "That is no longer there."

The soft US economy has been a significant contributor to the drop in illegal entries – fewer jobs attract fewer immigrants. But other experts agree that the security surge has played a role in bringing apprehensions down to levels last seen in the early 1970s.

"The investments were really significant, and they had an effect," says Thad Bingel, former chief of staff for Customs and Border Protection in the Bush administration and a founding partner of Command Consulting Group, a security consultancy in Washington, D.C.

"It's much more difficult to cross the border in Arizona or California or Texas today than it was in 2005, and your chances of getting caught are much higher," he adds.

But that progress has come at a cost, some say. Congress's response to the 9/11 attacks not only changed the size of the border patrol but also its purpose. In 2003, when the border patrol became part of the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), its mission was expanded to prioritize capturing terrorists and weapons of terror at the border.

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