April 10, 2013 -- The chief of the United States Border Patrol, Michael Fisher, told a Senate hearing today that his agency has developed a new system to measure not just how many undocumented immigrants the Patrol has apprehended, but how many it hasn't.
It's a breakthrough that could help legislators decide when the border is secure enough so that they might agree on a citizenship pathway for the undocumented.
Chief Fisher surprised the committee, including Sen. John McCain, when he said, "We want to know how many people come across the border and of that number, how many people do we either apprehend or turn back?"
Senator McCain shot back, "So have you developed the metrics and the standards or not?"
Fisher answered that they have, to which the Arizona senator questioned if the agency was using them.
"Well, it is in the final stages of development, Senator. I can tell you that," Fisher replied.
Until now, the Border Patrol had only used the number of apprehensions and then projected how many undocumented got away.
Chief Fisher also told the Senate Committee for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that illegal immigration has risen 13% this year. The Border Patrol attributes that to an improving economy in the United States and more available jobs.
Republicans have been demanding the Border Patrol control access to the country before agreeing to the critical pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Today on Capitol Hill the Border Patrol agents testifying admitted there could be more done to improve border security after the chairman of the committee asked them to "raise your hand" if you think the "border is far more secure than it was a half-dozen years ago" as well as "think we can do a whole lot more to improve it." All raised their hands.
Meanwhile, 2,000 miles west of today's hearings on Capitol Hill and the huge rally on immigration reform in Washington, D.C., Arizona rancher Jim Chilton patrols five miles of international border, armed with a rifle on his chest and a 6 gun on his belt, emphatically sounding an alarm that complicates immigration reform.
Standing near the four-strand barb-wired fence that marks the border, ABC News asked Chilton if he thought the border is secure. His answer: "NO! The border is not secure." That's a far cry from the responses given by those in border towns like El Paso, where the answer is a resounding yes.
Chilton, who is a fifth generation rancher, said that as he and his cowboys go about their business in the corrals daily, they hope those crossing for cartel purposes—such as transporting drugs—avoid them. But, just in case, he makes sure to never leave his house unprotected.
The rugged backcountry on his land is a magnet for those crossing illegally.
Using robotic, motion-sensitive cameras, hidden in the cactus and brush he, his neighbors, and Secure Border Intelligence – a website that describes itself as "documenting the porous US/Mexico border – have documented hundreds sneaking into the United States each month.
Chilton says that Border Patrol told him approximately 500 crossed his ranch in December. While ABC News visited, one Border Patrol officer told Chilton that he guesses they catch about 50% of those crossing his ranch.
A supporter of immigration reform, Chilton knows the numbers are down from their peak three years ago, and agrees that an increase in border patrol agents and equipment, plus 650 miles of steel fence are working in the major border towns ... but not where he lives, surrounded by wilderness.
"I live in no man's land," Jim Chilton said of his 50,000 acre ranch that sits along the U.S.-Mexico border. "I have to protect myself."
"Because there are so many patrol people along the walls, it protects people in the town of Nogales, El Paso, San Diego. And crime is down in those areas. Why? Because every third person has a uniform," Chilton said. "And no cartel businessman is going to try and funnel drugs or have people climb over walls in that area. No, they come through here."
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from February found that most apprehensions, 38%, and drug seizures, 28%, occur in the Tucson sector, which includes the Chilton ranch.
Jim Chilton's eyewitness account is important because the biggest sticking point for immigration reform remains border security.
"I think we should close the border and initiate dramatic immigration reform," he said. "We need a system where people can be employed, show papers, and employers respect the law and hire only documented people."
Tonight in Arizona another agreeing hand is raised by a rancher also on the front line of the immigration battle.