By foot, helicopter and horseback, she's traveled the border for more than 18 years as a public official.
Those experiences and her current position as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) prompted Janet Napolitano recently to discuss security and economic feats on the border and what the federal government is doing to ensure the safety and prosperity of border communities.
"We are almost two years into our (new) strategy and the verdict is in," Napolitano said. "The verdict is that our approach is working."
Nearly two years ago, Napolitano, in partnership with the border's law enforcement agencies, announced what is now known as the Southwest Border Initiative, or SBI, the federal government's attempt to improve border security by cracking down on drug cartels and allocating additional financial and human resources to better staff border enforcement agencies. As part of that plan, more strategic partnerships have been formed and more lines of communications have been opened with local, state and Mexican law enforcement authorities.
"Our partnership with Mexico along the border is very strong," Napolitano said. "We know these drug organizations are seeking to undermine the rule of law, especially in northern Mexico. We must guard against spillover effects into the U.S."
As part of SBI, DHS has deployed more than 350 additional officers and agents at the border and in Mexico. It has also doubled assignments to ICE's Border Enforcement Security Task Forces from 95 to 190 at a cost of $5.7 million; tripled the number of intelligence analysts working at the border, $3.3 million; and improved ICE strategic operations by increasing the number of agents working in Mexico, as is the case in Ciudad Juarez, by 50 percent, to the tune of $650,000.
"The Southwest Border Initiative is the most comprehensive and dedicated effort to strengthen border security that we have ever deployed," Napolitano said. "(Our goal) is to have a secure border zone that is hospitable to and fosters legal trade, travel and immigration. Our goal recognizes the border is not simply a line on a map – it's an entire area extending into both countries."
In a nationwide survey last year, El Paso and several other border communities were identified as the "safest" places to live in the U.S. Despite El Paso ranking No. 1 in safety in the country among metros of similar size, Napolitano said an unfair perception of border cities continues to be propagated.
"It is inaccurate to state, as too many have, that the U.S. side of the border is overrun with violence and is out of control," she said. "This statement, often made to score cheap political points, is just plain wrong. Not only does it ignore all the statistical evidence, it also belittles the significant progress that effective law enforcement has made to protect the border and the people who live alongside it."
Napolitano, raised in New Mexico, has spent most of her adult life in Arizona as the U.S. Attorney General and as a two-term governor of Arizona.
Statements made by public officials regarding border cities' insecurity are "often made to score cheap political points," and such rhetoric is "just plain wrong," Napolitano added.
That negative perception doesn't just hurt a city like El Paso's image, but it could do potential economic damage as well. Organizations such as the El Paso Regional Development Corp. and the Juarez Association of Maquiladoras (AMAC) have publicly stated their biggest challenge in marketing the area is the negative perception investors have of doing business on the border.
"Our border policy fosters legitimate trade, travel and immigration, accommodating the movement of commerce from the U.S. and Mexico derive trade and tourism revenue, which drives literally thousands of jobs in the U.S.," Napolitano said. "This approach has led to strengthened and increased partnerships with Mexico in trade and travel."
The SBI has also brought other sweeping changes to the border. More than 20,700 Border Patrol agents now patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, double the number of agents since 2004.
"We also quintupled deployments of border liaison officers to work with our Mexican counterparts and we began screening southbound rail and vehicle traffic looking for illegal weapons and cash helping fuel cartel violence in Mexico," Napolitano said.
While SBI has added more technology to border protection efforts, it's also done away with "ineffective, expensive" technology that was dragging down the DHS budget and not providing adequate results.
"We are doing away with expensive, yet ineffective programs like SBInet, otherwise known as the virtual fence," Napolitano said.
The SBInet program was implemented under the Bush administration as an attempt to provide a single, unified monitoring technology consisting of fixed cell towers constructed along the entire border.
"The program was consistently over budget, behind schedule and simply not delivering on return on investment," Napolitano said. "We are now redirecting SBInet resources to other proven technologies tailored to each border region."
Part of that shift in resources has allowed DHS to institute Predator unmanned aerial vehicle coverage along the entire Southwest border, from the El Centro Sector in California to the Gulf of Mexico. It has also invested more into technologies such as thermal imaging devices, ultralight detection, backscatter units, mobile radios, cameras and laptops for pursuit vehicles and remote surveillance system enhancements.
"It's clear from every key measure the approach is working," Napolitano said.
It's imperative the U.S. public, along with potential domestic and international investors, hear the truth about border security and the effectiveness of the government's current border enforcement initiatives, Napolitano said.
"We need to be honest with people about what is and what isn't happening in our border communities," she said. "Let's stick with the facts and numbers when we talk about the Southwest border."
Over the past two fiscal years, border enforcement agencies have seized 35 percent more illegal currency, 16 percent more drug shipments and 28 percent more weapons.
"We also need to send an unmistakable message to those who would threaten the safety and security of those border communities and feed a negative perception," Napolitano said. "Today I say to the cartels, 'Do not even think about brining your violence and tactics across the border. You will be met with an overwhelming response. We will work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you.'"
In addition to security enhancements, SBI has also resulted in a wave of crackdowns on U.S. employers who have knowingly hired illegal laborers.
"We've stepped up labor enforcement, arresting a record number of employers last year who hired illegal immigrants," she said. "ICE has significantly expanded its use of I-9 audits, which are used to investigate employers suspected of using illegal labor."
Since January 2009, ICE has audited more than 3,500 employers, debarred 235 companies and has collected more than $54 million in fines, more than the total number of audits and debarments during the entire Bush administration.
But as part of SBI's mission to improve economic conditions on the border, it has also brought improvements to border infrastructure and international trade relations.
"We have focused on growing the economy by expediting lawful travel and trade with America's second largest trading partner," Napolitano said. "We've done this by continuing to expand trusted traveler programs, making infrastructure improvements to our ports of entry and streamlining and modernizing our customs process."