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Locals React To Obama's Immigration Speech


Well, fast-forward to 2011, and there's not much cross-border handshaking going on, ceremonial or otherwise. The U.S.-Mexico border has become a militarized zone with fences, surveillance equipment and thousands of police and military personnel on both sides.

In his remarks today, President Obama said his administration has answered critics' concerns about border security. As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, people who live in the region aren't so sure.

TED ROBBINS: More Border Patrol agents, more fencing and more technology, the president says that's made the border safer.

President BARACK OBAMA: The truth is the measures we've put in place are getting results. Over the past two and a half years, we've seized 31 percent more drugs, 75 percent more currency, 64 percent more weapons than ever before.

ROBBINS: There's also been a drop in apprehensions of people trying to cross illegally.

But Larry Dever, the sheriff of Cochise County in southeastern Arizona, says that doesn't mean the border is safer. He says immigrants are being led now by drug cartel members, and they're being preyed upon by bandits.

Sheriff LARRY DEVER (Cochise County, Arizona): The bottom line is the people we're battling are much more sinister and much more aggressive, much more determined than they have ever been. When they used to run away, now they want to fight.

ROBBINS: To his critics, the president said today, you wanted more agents on the border, there are 20,000, more than double the number a decade ago. You wanted a fence. Well, now, the fence is basically complete.

But the government's measure of success has always been what it calls operational control. Problem is no one has ever been able to define what that means. Does it mean stopping everyone trying to enter illegally? Half? Do fewer people caught crossing mean border enforcement is working, or that people aren't being caught?

Former Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard says that lack of a concrete goal is the administration's and its critics' greatest deficiency.

Mr. TERRY GODDARD (Former Arizona Attorney General): In other words, the advocates as well as the opponents appear to be willing to operate in an area of maximum fuzziness where we don't know what success looks like.

ROBBINS: So it's no wonder the administration can claim success while immigration hawks can say he's wrong. That was George W. Bush's problem as well. And like President Bush, President Obama wants broader immigration reform, but there is a difference between the two administrations.

Jennifer Allen, of the Tucson-based Border Action Network, says immigrant advocates like her have gotten much greater access to Obama administration officials to make their case, but Allen says, so far, access has not meant influence.

Ms. JENNIFER ALLEN (Executive Director, Border Action Network): While we had far greater conversations with higher level officials within the Homeland Security Department, we have not seen any of its recommendations necessarily translate into policy changes.

ROBBINS: There's a sign in the storefront window of the Border Action Network's office in English and Spanish. It has the White House phone number and the message: Tell Obama you want immigration reform in 2009.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.