You shouldn't have to wear a cowboy hat to be heard on border security.

And you shouldn't have to view the border as out-of-control for politicians or reporters to pay attention.

But increasingly, both appear required. To count as a credible source, you must be a rancher who thinks border-security is poor. A Stetson is preferred.

Otherwise, you simply don't fit the story line.

Gov. Jan Brewer toured the border by helicopter, met with Border Patrol union officials and spoke with a group of border-area ranchers Tuesday before returning to Tucson and declaring the border insecure.

It was a predictable outcome, about as predictable as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declaring before a congressional committee Wednesday, "Our borders have in fact never been stronger."

If we're going to assess border security, we need to use good measures of effectiveness and hear representative experiences. From this week's news, we're not there yet.

Brewer's declaration was predictable. In response to immigration-reform proposals, she said Jan. 7: "We can talk to the people that are affected personally by the border. And when they say that border is secure, then I think that we can rest peacefully."

It was pretty clear that day whom she would ask, but I wanted to know the specifics. So Wednesday night, I asked Brewer's spokesman, Matt Benson, by email the names of the ranchers who met with Brewer Tuesday and helped convince her our border remains insecure.

"I know that those individuals preferred to meet in private in order to allow them to be absolutely candid and so that their identities would not be exposed to the cartels, et cetera," he responded.

When I wrote back that I considered it important to know who the ranchers are in order to know whether the governor got a representative sample of opinion, Benson's next email said this: "Do you know a lot of ranchers in Southern Arizona who think concerns about the border are overblown?"

Actually, plenty of ranchers and other rural residents around here do not feel overrun by illegal immigrants.

Take Sharon Denham, who runs a horse-training and -breeding operation a few miles north of Douglas.

"I haven't seen an illegal go through here in six months. Two or three or four years ago, illegals were running through my property almost every night," she told me Wednesday. "I know the authorities have been able to stem the tide in my neighborhood."

She acknowledges that ranchers farther east may be suffering, but the truth on the ground differs where she lives. I think we can safely presume Brewer did not hear from the Denhams of the borderland.

There are also people like Dan Oldfield, the rural Bisbee resident near whose home Border Patrol Agent Nick Ivie was killed last year. He feels invaded by the Border Patrol, not smugglers and illegal immigrants.

Even homing in on rural residents leaves aside the majority of Arizona's border-area population. They live in towns like Douglas, Nogales, Sierra Vista and Bisbee. Their point of view on border security should count, too.

U.S. Rep. Ron Barber has seen the diversity of opinion on border security since he became then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' district director in 2007. He was the main liaison from Giffords' office to ranchers concerned about border issues.

"Clearly it depends on where you live as to whether you feel things have improved enough that you feel safe," Barber said.

Barber, now the ranking Democrat on the oversight subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, is asking the department to develop goals and metrics to measure progress on security.

I think that would help. For too long, the number of apprehensions made by the Border Patrol has been used to declare success, whether the total goes up or down.

But Art Del Cueto, the president of National Border Patrol Council Local 2544, doubts DHS will come up with a dependable measure of security. Del Cueto, who met with Brewer Tuesday, wants border security assessments to come from on-the-ground accounts.

"They say the border's secure, but no one's bothered to ask the agents if the border's secure," he said.

OK, I say we hear from line agents - not just their chiefs - along with borderland ranchers and townspeople. A representative sampling will give us a good picture of the state of play on the border.

The experiences of all sorts of people who live and work on the border matter, even if they don't wear cowboy hats.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter