A lack of resources has made the legal ports of entry a weak link in the border, yet the Senate's immigration bill focuses almost entirely on the desert in between.
The bill, now facing a tough battle in the House, would nearly double the number of Border Patrol agents. But it would barely add any field officers who are responsible for keeping drugs and terrorists from slipping through and getting travelers and trade quickly across the border.
Initial talks about changes in immigration law focused on beefing up the legal entry points. But an amendment designed to win more Republican support changed that.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said the decision to focus on the desert between the ports stems from ignorance about the border region.
"For the people who rant the most, their idea of a border visit is to go out to a fence, take a photograph, make a statement about security and go back to parts of the country that have no understanding of what the borderlands are," he said.
The Congressional Border Caucus that Grijalva co-chairs will push for a parallel proposal in the House to fund entry ports, through which 350 million people and $2.3 trillion in trade crossed last year. That will help secure the border while creating jobs and stimulating the economy, he said.
The Border Patrol as well as Customs and Border Protection, which is also known as the Office of Field Operations, were chronically underfunded and understaffed from the early '70s through the formation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, said Doris Meissner, senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service - now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and failures to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the nation's attention turned mostly to the Border Patrol.
Over the years, the growth of Border Patrol agents has outpaced that of customs officers.
In Arizona, there's fewer than one customs officer for every five agents.
Still, Art Del Cueto, president of the local Border Patrol union, says agents are spread thin because many assist other agencies, including customs officers, with southbound inspections.
On a given day, about 40 agents can assist officers at the ports in Arizona, CBP officials said.
"It's clear the Border Patrol has done a really good job shutting, not all, but large areas of the border between the ports of entry," said Erik Lee, executive director of the North American Research Partnership and co-author of the report "The State of the Border." "The big needs are at the ports of entry."
Initially, immigration reform focused on the ports of entry. Then, last month, Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota introduced an amendment that would add nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents over the next decade. The amendment also requires a long list of high-tech equipment, much of it to be deployed between the land ports.
The original Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill called for 3,500 customs officers but didn't give a specific number for Border Patrol agents.
The president's budget the last couple of years has called for additional customs officers. The fiscal 2014 budget proposes 1,600 new customs officers and millions of dollars for new equipment and technology at the nation's 329 official land, air and sea ports of entry.
Top DHS officials have also emphasized the role the ports of entry play in the economy.
"We believe that border security and economic prosperity go hand in hand," said David Murphy, CBP acting assistant commissioner of field operations, during a House committee hearing in June.
"Customs and Border Protection and the Office of Field Operations have particularly matured in recent years in realizing the dynamic and importance of that trade," he said. He called it "the lifeblood in our economy."
Mexico is the United States' second-largest export market and third-largest trading partner - and it is Arizona's No. 1 trading partner with $13 billion in trade goods. A full 70 percent of the commerce that comes into and leaves the United States crosses the border via trucks, Lee said.
"How large would U.S.-Mexico trade be if we had a border that functioned in much more seamless and modern fashion?" he asked.
For every 1,000 customs officers added, the U.S. should expect a $2 billion boost in gross domestic product, a University of Southern California study found.
Reduced wait times would draw visitors from Mexico and Canada, and would lessen transportation costs, all of which helps stimulate the U.S. economy, said Bryan Roberts, an economist who co-authored the study. It said the DeConcini and Mariposa ports in Nogales would add nearly 60,000 passengers - both American and Mexican - if just one customs officer was added during the most congested times.
Process of education
It's all about education, said U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat from Arizona.
"People who have never been to the border don't know what we are dealing with," he said. "They don't see the 2 1/2 hours or longer lines of people trying to get into our country for legal purposes."
He plans to bring congressional members from non-border states to make them aware of border issues.
Arizona's ports of entry process more than 20 million people, 7 million vehicles and nearly 400,000 commercial trucks a year. Last year, officers seized more than 90,000 pounds of drugs and apprehended nearly 8,000 people who were not supposed to be here.
As Border Patrol enforcement becomes more effective, criminal organizations will try to push more drugs and people through the ports, Lee said.
Over the last several years, CBP increased southbound inspections in search of guns and money. Border Patrol agents often work with customs officers to inspect vehicles traveling to Mexico.
"It's another burden added to the limited resources of customs agents," Barber said, "but if we are really going to bring those cartels down, we need to disrupt the money flow and guns going south."
Cartels use ports of entry to smuggle drug proceeds and guns purchased in the United States into Mexico.
$6 billion needed
Customs and Border Protection has said it would need about $6 billion of investment to fully modernize the land ports of entry along the southern and northern borders.
Meissner said port infrastructure hasn't kept up with available technology, and she hasn't seen a real investment effort "to create a much more modern system."
The Douglas port of entry was last expanded in 1993 and deemed several years ago as "wholly inadequate" for today's needs by the General Services Administration, an independent government agency that oversees the development and maintenance of most of the land ports of entry owned by the federal government.
The ports of entry in Nogales are equipped with technology to read all license plates and scan documents, but when traffic wait times exceed 60 minutes, inspectors typically "flush" traffic through, "pulling aside only obvious high-risk crossers, in an effort to reconcile their facilitation and enforcement missions under trying conditions," the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute reported in a January study on immigration enforcement.
The expansion and renovation of the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales - one of the busiest land ports in the country - will be completed by August 2014, but it's still about 100 officers short to fully staff it, said Lee, with the North American Research Partnership.
Securing the border can't be done a piece at a time, Barber said.
There needs to be increased attention to both the ports of entry and Border Patrol agents, he said.
"We have to do it all."
• At the peak in fiscal year 2000, apprehensions between legal ports of entry were nearly three times the 559,000 people were denied admission at the ports of entry. By fiscal 2011, between-port apprehensions were only 1 1/2 times the 215,600 denied admission at ports of entry.
• In 2012, appropriations for Customs and Border Protection were just under $3 billion. The area between the ports of entry - including Border Patrol and fencing, infrastructure and technology - received about $4 billion.
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at email@example.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo