Nightly News   |  May 02, 2013

US border cities safer, but not rural areas

As the national debate over comprehensive immigration reform plays out, the question looms: just how secure is the U.S. border with Mexico? NBC’s Mark Potter reports.

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>> is raising concerns about what's happening right now along the u.s./mexico border where the answer to the question of how safe it is depends on where you look. as you're about to see from our nbc news hidden camera investigation. mark potter has covered the story extensively for us for years and has our report tonight.

>> reporter: for decades the rugged mountains of arizona and the vast desert there have posed major challenges for those trying to secure the u.s./ mexican border . commander jeffrey south of u.s. border protection says with new technology and more man power now, security is much tighter.

>> we have a much more secure border than we did in years past. you can't argue the fact that the numbers tell the story.

>> reporter: those numbers show that apprehensions of immigrants crossing the mexican border illegally have dropped dramatically -- from 1.6 million in the year 2000 to about 357,000 last year.

>> we have driven numbers of illegal migrants to 40-year lows. seizures of contraband are up.

>>eporter: most agree that effective steps have been taken to protect the u.s. cities along the border . with high fences, 24-hour cameras and thousands of agents. for all the agreement about security in most of the border cities there is controversy and concern about the vast rural areas along the border where many say it is neither safe nor secure.

>> reporter: gary thrasher, an arizona veterinarian says where he works the border is wide open .

>> the more they protect one region, the more itunnels people into the more remote areas.

>> reporter: to see for ourselves, nbc news hid three motion sensitive cameras in remote southern arizona . 11 miles north of the border we recorded a group of smugglers on private land carrying marijuana loads in broad daylight. elsewhere we found other border crossers making their northbound treks at night. but even worse, border patrol agents say, is the situation in south texas along the rio grande where immigrant apprehensions are rising dramatically. by 65% last year and 55% this year. as more people flee central america . deputies in brooks county , texas, say they seized a smuggler's cell phone loaded with this video allegedly showing immigrants being brought illegally into the united states .

>> we suspected they had at least 25 to 30 people in here.

>> reporter: police chief juan gonzales says in san juan , texas, he's seeing a surge in immigrant smugglers setting up stash houses.

>> if they are here they crossed the border .

>> sure.

>> is that happening regularly in your town?

>> every day.

>> reporter: just how secure is the u.s. border ? many who live there say it varies depending on where you look. mark potter , nbc news, tucson, arizona .