"Advanced technology has aided the mission of deterring and detecting illegal immigrants before they enter our country. Still, a substantial stretch of land goes undetected each and every day," said Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey, who traveled the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso, Texas, to Arizona with two Republican colleagues last month.
"Although the technology is effective in contributing to a decrease in the number of illegal crossings, we need to continue expanding the use of these valuable systems," he said.
Iowa Rep. Steve King, who accompanied Gingrey on the trip and is a leading advocate for tighter border controls, also touted the value of expanding the border fence.
"I've probably traveled every mile of the border from the Pacific Ocean across California and Arizona, New Mexico to El Paso, [Texas]," King said in an interview earlier this month. "And the fencing around El Paso clearly is working. They have a fence, a canal with a lot of water rushing down it, and another fence. … But as you fortify one section of the border and redirect traffic to the weakest area, you also have to add resources there."
Both King and Gingrey joined 233 fellow House Republicans in voting for a budget bill that cuts millions of dollars from border surveillance technology and fencing initiatives.
"I think all of us have to recognize that there's a problem with the deficit," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which favors stricter immigration controls. "So we have a little bit of understanding on that. ... But the cuts to fence and surveillance spending are very discouraging because that has been promised. The fence more than anything protects against people coming across the border meant to harm us."
The Department of Homeland Security has deployed record numbers of Border Patrol agents and technological resources along the border over the past several years. It has also reported unprecedented totals of illegal immigrant apprehensions and deportations and seizures of illicit shipments of weapons and drugs.
"The border is as secure now as it's ever been, but we know we can always do more and that will always be the case," Secretary Janet Napolitano said last summer and repeated many times since. "It's a big border. It is 1,960 miles across that southwest border. It's some of the roughest toughest geographical terrain in the world across that border. … You're never going to totally seal the border."
But Republicans and illegal immigration opponents, including NumbersUSA, strongly dispute claims that the border is secure, insisting the region remains highly dangerous and far from under control.
"Though Napolitano may not want to admit it, the southern U.S. border is far from secure," said Smith, of Texas late last year.
It's a point on which Beck agrees. "Money is not the main problem," he said. "It's a problem of will. Even with the reduced amount of spending we could still have a secure border if President Obama and Janet Napolitano gave orders to enforce it more aggressively."