Damien Cave / New York Times News Service

PENITAS, Texas —

The border fence behind Manuel Zamora’s home suggests strength and protection, its steel poles perfectly aligned just beyond the winding Rio Grande. But every night, the crossers come. After dark and at sunup, too, dozens of immigrants scale the wall or walk around it, their arrival announced by the angry yelps of backyard dogs.

“Look,” Zamora said early one recent morning, “here they come now.” He pointed toward his neighbor’s yard, where a young man in a dark sweatshirt and white sneakers sprinted toward the road, his breath visible in the winter dawn. Three others followed, rushing into a white sedan that arrived at the exact moment their feet hit the pavement.

“I don’t know how the government can stop it,” Zamora said, watching the car drive away. “It’s impossible to stop the traffic. You definitely can’t stop it with laws or walls.”

The challenge has tied Congress in knots for decades, and as lawmakers in Washington pursue a sweeping overhaul of immigration, the country is once again debating what to do about border security.

By every indicator, illegal migration into the United States has fallen tremendously — in part because of stricter immigration enforcement — and has held steady at lower levels for several years. But visits to more than a half-dozen border locations over the past two years show that the levels of control vary significantly along the line.

Many areas that used to be popular crossing points have experienced undeniable improvements. Migrant shelters across from El Paso, Texas, are now often empty. A generation after San Diego was overrun with thousands of immigrants openly rushing into the city every day, experts, Border Patrol agents and deportees in Tijuana, Mexico, all say that the chances of reaching Southern California are remote, with odds of success at 1 in 10, or worse.

Other sections of the border have seen less progress. In the Rio Grande Valley, crossings by the dozen still occur regularly, with relative ease, despite noticeable increases in the Border Patrol’s capabilities. The governmentwide spending cuts could make things worse.

It is increasingly clear to those who live along the boundary with Mexico — or who try to protect it — that there is no such thing as a completely secure border, just as there are no cities without crime. Even in areas with towering walls and drones or helicopters overhead, border security can be breached.

“The U.S. border with Mexico is better controlled than at any time in our history,” said Robert Bonner, who served under President George W. Bush as the commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But, he said, there is a lack of understanding among policymakers and the public about the challenge. “The terrain can be quite different depending on what part of the border you are talking about, and there are different ways, different tactics really, that need to be brought into play. And this requires almost mile-by-mile analysis.”

Suly Ochoa, 56, a home health care aide whose home sits along the border wall in Granjeno, Texas, says that what she wants from the border policy is simple: “It needs to be smarter.”

Like many of her neighbors in this town of 303, which was founded on Spanish land grants in 1767, she and her family have seen immigrants crossing through the area’s mesquite trees and tall grass for decades.

They have often helped the most desperate, calling ambulances for children or pregnant women. But residents have become increasingly concerned about security, as Mexican drug gangs seized the business of moving people and narcotics. Crime in the larger area of McAllen, Texas, while low, now occasionally includes what appear to be targeted killings.

Ochoa said she and many others in Granjeno had hoped the $20 million border wall — a 1.7 mile stretch of concrete and dirt, rising 18 feet — would help them feel safer. Now, a few years after completion, it looks to her more like a waste. “It’s not working at all,” she said, standing near the wall. “To me, it’s money down the drain.”

Part of the problem is that the fences and walls cover a limited area in the Rio Grande Valley sector — just under 54 miles staking out a relatively straight boundary near the 316 curving miles of river border. And even within the fenced area, because of the riverfront farms and parks, there are several gated openings.

Ochoa says she sees drug loads at least once a week — usually large pickup trucks with bales of marijuana in the back barely covered with a tarp. Immigrant crossings occur almost every night, usually in groups of 10 to 20 people.

Border Patrol officials emphasize they are doing more than ever. In the 1990s, agents here recall, they did not have a budget to keep their gas tanks full. Now staffing levels in the sector have more than tripled, to about 2,500 agents. Additional intelligence comes from drones and helicopters, along with cameras set up by the state to track wildlife.

The Border Patrol has also received help from the National Guard and about 100 members of a Border Patrol mobile response team that was created a few years ago to move along with smuggling patterns.

Criminal organizations dominate Reynosa, the Mexican city across the border from McAllen, and they have made smuggling along this section of the border a sophisticated monopoly. The Gulf Cartel controls access to the river (called the Rio Bravo in Mexico) and will beat or kill anyone who tries to cross without paying.

On weekends, smugglers often rush the border from several points, agents and immigrants said, which means more drugs and immigrants are caught — and more get through. Smugglers have also become masters of decoys and delays. Ochoa said she has seen smaller cars pulled over, followed by large trucks that slip by while the authorities are tied up.

Zamora seemed ambivalent, going back and forth between annoyance and resignation. Leaning on a steel pole for support, his 77 years looking more like 88, he said that as long as immigrants could find work — as long as the incentive system far from the border stayed the same — people would come. He knew it because it was his own experience. Though legal now, as a young boy more than 60 years ago, he swam across the same river to pursue the American dream.

(REPEATING to add graphic note.)


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WASHINGTON – The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace only exceeded in the last half-century by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the Cold War.

And the turn toward austerity is set to accelerate Friday if the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration start to take effect as scheduled. Those cuts would join an earlier round of deficit reduction measures passed in 2011 and the wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that already have reduced the federal government’s contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product by almost 7 percent in the last two years.

The cuts may be felt more deeply because state and local governments – which expanded rapidly during earlier rounds of federal reductions in the 1970s and the 1990s, offsetting much of the effect – have also been cutting back.

Federal, state and local governments now employ 500,000 fewer workers than they did on the eve of the recession in 2007, the longest and deepest decline in total government employment since the aftermath of World War II.

Total government spending continues to increase, but those broader figures include benefit programs like Social Security. Government purchases and investments expand the nation’s economy, just as private-sector transactions do, while benefit programs move money from one group of people to another without directly expanding economic activity.

The Federal Reserve and other economic forecasters say that the latest round of government austerity is not likely to return the economy to recession, thanks to stronger private-sector growth. But the spending cutbacks and actions to raise taxes could reduce growth by roughly 1.5 percentage points this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, leaving the sluggish economy operating well below capacity.

In testimony to lawmakers on Tuesday, the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, urged Congress and the Obama administration to replace the scheduled budget cuts with a plan to reduce federal deficits more gradually.

“Although monetary policy is working to promote a more robust recovery, it cannot carry the entire burden of ensuring a speedier return to economic health,” Bernanke said. He warned that the combination of previous spending cuts and the looming mandatory reductions “could create a significant headwind for the economic recovery.”

The shrinking government is a normal response to an extraordinary situation. Government spending generally rises during recessions and falls as the economy recovers. Spending always declines at the end of one war, let alone two. And three years after a recession, the U.S. economy typically is restored to full health.

But this time is different. Growth has remained sluggish and millions remain unemployed even as the federal government, out of patience and stalemated by a deep partisan divide, has largely turned its attention to deficit reduction.

Bernanke, like many critics of sequestration, said the government could not ignore the need to reduce its annual deficits and curtail the growth of its debt. But he said short-term cuts would worsen those problems by slowing the economy. Moreover, sequestration mostly spares Medicare and Medicaid, the health care programs that are the primary reason federal spending is projected to increase.

Congress and the administration, he said, should “introduce these cuts more gradually and compensate with larger and more sustained cuts in the future.”

Others, however, say that it makes no sense to postpone inevitable cuts. They note that government cutbacks may cause short-term pain, but also tend to provide long-term benefits by making resources available to the private sector.

“People focus on the upfront cost and they don’t think through the whole timeline,” said Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and an occasional contributor to the Sunday Business section of The New York Times.. “You have to cut spending within the next 10 years anyway. It may be time to take some lumps.”

The current round of austerity does not yet approach the depth or the duration of the earlier round of cutbacks. Between 1969 and 1974, as spending on the Vietnam War declined, the government reduced consumption and investment by 24 percent after adjusting for inflation. Between 1991 and 1999, the government reduced consumption and investment by an inflation-adjusted 14 percent.

Over the last two years, federal consumption and investment declined by 6.9 percent. Including state and local consumption, a larger category that has declined more slowly, the inflation-adjusted reduction since 2011 was 4.9 percent.

But Alec Phillips, an economist at Goldman Sachs, estimated that federal consumption could fall by another 11 percent over the next two years. Moreover, Phillips noted that those earlier rounds of cuts in the 1970s and the 1990s came primarily from the military budget. The sequester is designed to be indiscriminate, cutting everything from air traffic control to nursery schools.

That could increase the resulting pain, because economic research suggests that military cuts are less painful than other kinds of spending reductions. “It is cutting some of the best spending that government does,” Cowen said of the cuts that would fall on the domestic side of the ledger.

He said Congress should focus instead on cuts to military spending, farm subsidies and health care programs like Medicare that he regarded as ripe for reductions.

He said that military contractors and personnel might be able to find new jobs with relative ease, because unemployment rates are fairly low for well-educated workers; it is those with less education who are struggling most.

An important reason for the depth of the current cutbacks is that the federal government mounted an unusually large response to the recession, even adjusting for its severity, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Federal spending expanded to equal almost 25 percent of annual economic output in 2009, well above the 23 percent share that would have been expected based on past recessions, the San Francisco Fed found.

But that pattern has now flipped. While federal spending remained above the historical trend until earlier this year, scheduled cuts over the next two years would push government spending well below the trend.

“History shows that discretionary fiscal policy often helps to support a recovery,” Janet Yellen, vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, said in a recent speech. “Discretionary fiscal policy this time has actually acted to restrain the recovery.”

She added: “I expect that discretionary fiscal policy will continue to be a headwind for the recovery for some time, instead of the tail wind it has been in the past.”

There are now more agents along the 1,954-mile-long border than ever before ...

Staffing has more than doubled in most of the nine sectors along the border, but the growth has not been uniform. Nearly 40 percent of the border staff in 2012 was in Tucson or El Paso, two sectors covering about 500 miles of the border with declining shares of immigrant traffic. They were among the main locations of illegal border crossings during the Mexican migration wave that peaked around 2005.

... and apprehensions along the border have fallen sharply as fewer attempts are made ...

Overall, the number of people caught trying to cross the border illegally has declined sharply in recent years, largely because there were fewer people trying to cross the border in the first place. The recession was one factor. Additionally, the presence of criminal gangs on the Mexican side of the border and increased Border Patrol staffing increased the risks and cost of the trip.

... but even in the most secure areas, some people still cross illegally.

The Border Patrol has been estimating the number of migrants who successfully avoided capture after being detected, and officials believe agents are catching a higher percentage now than in previous years. Because of differences in tracking by sector, the numbers are better for showing trends in a single sector, rather than comparing across sectors.

Sources: Government Accountability Office, Customs and Border Protection. Note: Data for the percentage who evaded capture was not available for all years. New York Times News Service

News on furloughs — Sequester cuts will force 60,000 federal workers responsible for securing borders to take mandatory time off beginning in April. Agencies say the cuts will reduce the number of border agents on duty at any time, in addition to increasing wait times at ports of entry, including international arrivals at airports.

And on privacy — The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that Border Patrol agents must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before conducting comprehensive searches of laptops or other digital devices in what civil liberties activists are calling a significant victory for privacy rights. The decision creates for the first time a broad standard aimed at protecting travelers’ most private information from arbitrary searches.

Sources: The Associated Press, CNN