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Arizona border residents skeptical of Senate immigration plan

By Tim Gaynor

NACO, Arizona (Reuters) - A Senate immigration plan seeking billions of dollars to secure the porous Mexico border sparked some skepticism in southern Arizona, where wary residents of the border area said previous efforts to ramp up enforcement had failed to stop illegal crossings.

"They ain't going to stop it unless they build that wall 50 feet high and ... 50 feet deep," said Jesus Morales, the fire district chief in Naco, a tiny community southeast of Tucson, which is separated from its namesake town in Mexico by a 10- to 13-foot-high (3- to 4-metre-high) steel fence.

The proposals came in a landmark immigration reform bill introduced by a group of eight Republican and Democratic senators on Tuesday that would lift the threat of deportation for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

It also seeks $3 billion in new money for 3,500 additional customs agents, technology including unmanned surveillance drones, and a strategy to identify what additional fencing is needed to discourage people from crossing Mexico's border with the United States.

The measure identifies "high risk" areas where apprehensions are above 30,000 a year, such as the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which includes cities and towns like Naco and surrounding ranch and wilderness areas where law enforcement has had less success in sealing the border, in part because of the harsh terrain.

"It's only going to drive the human smugglers further out into the desert, and that's going to create more deaths, more littering on the ranches," said Morales, who is the only elected official in this small unincorporated community of about 1,000 residents.

Bill Odle, who lives on a remote 50-acre (20-hectare) plot of ranch land by the border fence a few miles west of Naco, doubted the additional steps sought by the senators would choke off frequent incursions by migrants and smugglers from Mexico.

"They are saying ‘We'll get so many more of this, we'll get so much more of that, and that will solve it.' No it won't," Odle said.

"Three billion, three quadrillion, they are numbers that people can't fathom anyway, and they haven't looked into what they have already done with the money they've already been given," he added.

But Gretchen Baer, a painter who is working with children on a project to decorate the rusted border barrier in Naco, Mexico, with brightly colored murals, felt there was no need to tighten security any further.

"Isn't it enough already? They have a huge, huge (Border Patrol) station so why do they need more? It doesn't work anyway," she said.

'GOOD MOVES'

Successive administrations have already doubled the number of Border Patrol agents to more than 18,500 since 2004, built 651 miles of fencing along key trafficking areas, and added drones, sensors and night-vision cameras to detect and track incursions.

As a yardstick of security gains, President Barack Obama's administration touts a plunge in the number of arrests to 356,873 on the border in the year to the end of September from more than 1.6 million at its peak in 2000.

The Border Patrol's Tucson sector did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Tuesday.

Some elements of the new Senate proposal, which also seeks to beef up prosecutions for undocumented entrants and secure funding for a program for state and local law enforcement to help curb illegal border activity, were welcomed.

"For border communities and border law enforcement and border security, I think those are good moves," said Tony Estrada, the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, flanking the Mexico border near the border city of Nogales, Arizona.

"All the resources and the funding that we can possibly get for the local and state agencies are going to be very useful and helpful and productive" in efforts to tackle smuggling, he said.

Arizona border rancher and veterinarian Gary Thrasher is adamant that success in securing the border depends on deterring smugglers from crossing from Mexico. He welcomed the Senate proposal to boost the prosecution of undocumented border crossers to 210 a day in the Tucson sector from the current 70 a day.

"I agree with them prosecuting all the people that they catch to the fullest extent of the law," he said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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