WASHINGTON, May 20, 2010— -- Cochise County, Arizona – a sparsely-populated region the size of Rhode Island in the state's southwest corner – is ground zero in America's latest battle over illegal immigration.
In the past few months, aggressive Mexican drug smugglers and migrants have harassed residents of the county, burglarizing homes and taking food and clothing, local law enforcement officials say.
Ranchers have seen cattle slaughtered and pulled apart by hungry people stealing across the border, and one resident, Robert Krentz, may have been shot dead by an alleged illegal immigrant as he patrolled his land last month.
The U.S. Border Patrol says apprehensions along the Arizona-Mexico frontier are up 6 percent from October to April.
The situation is part of what Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has characterized as "murder, terror and mayhem" and used as justification for the state's controversial new immigration law. It's also why Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl say the federal government must deploy the National Guard to police the border.
But while several violent high-profile incidents in the Tucson, Arizona, sector have gained national attention and colored political rhetoric, an ABC News analysis of immigration and crime data, combined with interviews with law enforcement officials, shows something very different -- that violence and crime on the U.S. side of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico are generally on the decline.
By numbers alone, the border region appears, as Department of Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano put it, is as "secure now as it has ever been."
U.S. Border Towns Report Low, Declining Crime Rates
In many of the U.S. border communities themselves, local law enforcement officials report violent- and property-crime rates that have fallen over the past year, and, in several cases, are among the lowest in the country.
Cities like Tucson; Chula Vista, California; and Lardeo, Texas, have all seen year-over-year drops in violent crime, murder, and rape. El Paso, Texas, continues to have one of the lowest rates of violent crime of all U.S. cities, just behind Honolulu, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report.
"I don't see the border in chaos at all," said Octavio Rodriguez, who studies drug-related violence along the Mexican border at the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute. "The Tijuana-San Diego border area in particular is very secure."
To be sure, violence in Mexico itself, driven by warring drug cartels in the communities along the U.S. border, has spiked in the past few years.
More than 20,000 Mexican citizens have been killed since the latest surge in violence began in 2006, and some experts believe recent crimes in Arizona involving illegal immigrants may have ties to that Mexican unrest.
"Certainly, on the U.S. side, the border crime is not out of control even though there are flows [of people and drugs] going both ways," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a border security expert with the Brookings Institution.
In Cochise County, some people disagree.
"The overall crime numbers here may be stagnant," said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Carol Capas, "but that doesn't mean crime isn't spilling over the border. It is spilling over."
Tucson Corridor 'Natural Funnel' for Illegal Flows
Still, observers say the seriousness of the few crimes involving illegal immigrants that have occurred in Arizona border communities may be creating the false impression of a widespread violent crime problem that isn't there.
"These high-profile cases on both sides of the border generate fear and intensify lots of reaction, lots of passion, more than reflect any real or substantive problem," said Felbab-Brown.
Other sources say the uptick in violent incidents is a result of heightened enforcement and security measures which are acting as a "natural funnel," forcing drug traffickers, smugglers and illegal workers trying to cross the border into a concentrated area of more dangerous paths into the country.
"The more pressure is applied in urban areas, the further out the migrants and smugglers are going to go, and the more competitive, more violent it's going to get," said Sheriff Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County, Arizona.
"The increased deployment of Border Patrol Agents and the overall changes in strategy have increasingly pushed illegal immigrants into more dangerous terrain," according to a recent report by the National Foundation for American Policy.
Last year, 417 immigrants were found dead near the border, compared to 390 in 2008 and 298 in 2007, according to the Border Patrol.
"Violence is on the Mexican side, like it's breathing on us," said Estrada, whose county has 50 miles of border with Mexico. "But the [Santa Cruz] county is very safe as a whole. If there's any violence here, it's in the rural areas and canyons… There are probably a lot of things going on we're not aware of."