U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said Thursday that security on the southern U.S. border "is better now than it ever has been" and that violence from neighboring Mexico hasn't spilled over in a serious way.
She said the Department of Homeland Security will deploy 250 more border agents and expects to have 300 more under their next budget if it's approved. She stated that Homeland Security is investing "millions of dollars in the side of commerce and trade" to improve infrastructure and technology along the border.
However, she added that there is a need to correct wrong impressions about the border region. Napolitano said border towns are safe for travel, trade and commerce. She noted that the total value of imports crossing the Southwest border was up 22 percent in fiscal year 2010, she said.
"There is a perception that the border is worse now than it ever has been. That is wrong. The border is better now than it ever has been," she said.
Napolitano spoke at the Bridge of The Americas border crossing, after a meeting with the mayors of the border towns of El Paso, Nogales, Ariz., and Yuma, Ariz. Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sanchez and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin also were present.
'Much to do'
The perception that the violence in Mexico has spilled over to bordering U.S. cities is "wrong again," Napolitano said. Violent crime rates have remained flat or decreased in border communities in the Southwest, she said. However, she recognized that "there is much to do with (their) colleagues in Mexico in respect to the drug cartels" that are largely responsible for the unprecedented wave of violence in that country.
Raging drug violence in Mexico has claimed more than 36,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006 and sent the army to crush the drug cartels.
President Barack Obama has pledged support for Calderon, increasing efforts to curb gun running and cash smuggling over the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
El Paso Mayor John Cook said his city has been ranked the safest city in the country of its size, despite being across the border from Ciudad Juarez, where some 8,000 people have been killed in the past three years.
"The lie about border cities being dangerous has been told so many times that people are starting to believe it, but we as border communities have to speak out," Cook sad.
Napolitano cited a reduction of 36 percent in the number of illegal immigrant detentions, a key number to estimate the total of illegal border crossings, and the increase in trade as reasons to believe the situation along the border has improved.
"Numbers are in the right direction and dramatically so," she said.
Still, she stressed that she didn't come to El Paso "to run a victory lap" and that there "is much work to do."
Meanwhile, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he was "disturbed" by the Obama administration's plans to withdraw more than a thousand National Guard troops brought in last year to shore security on the border.
"We are very disturbed by the announcement made by the Department of Homeland Security in Washington that they will be withdrawing the National Guard," McCain said at a news conference in Tucson on Thursday following a visit to the border with four Republican congressional colleagues.
The drawdown was announced last week. McCain said that it is important to have the National Guard "here until we have enough Border Patrol and other associated organizations that will complete the job of securing the border."