Now, crossing would mean scaling two fences, passing a phalanx of agents, and eluding cameras.
The difference, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said, is like ``a rocket ship and a horse and buggy.''
In pure numbers it is this: Where border agents made some 530,000 arrests in San Diego in fiscal year 1993, they had fewer than 30,000 in 2012.
There is no simple yardstick to measure border security. And yet, as the debate over immigration reform ramps back up, many will try.
``Secure the border first'' has become a litmus test for many upon which a broader overhaul is contingent. As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said recently: ``We need a responsible, permanent solution'' to illegal immigration. But first, added the Florida Republican, ``we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders.''
In fact, the 1,954-mile border with Mexico is more difficult to breach than ever. San Diego is but one example.
Two decades ago, fewer than 4,000 Border Patrol agents manned the entire Southwest border. Today there are 18,500. Apprehensions, meantime, have plummeted to levels not seen since the 1970s—with 356,873 in FY2012. Compare that to 1.2 million apprehensions in 1993, when new strategies began bringing officers and technology to border communities. Sensors have been planted, cameras erected, and drones monitor from above.
But for those who live and work along the boundary, ``secure'' means different things. In Arizona, ranchers scoff at the idea. In New Mexico, locals worry about what's heading south in addition to flowing north. And in Texas, residents firmly believe that reform itself would finally help steady the flow of people and drugs.
These places have been transformed. Sealed? No. But as one border mayor asked: ``How secure is secure?''