They linger amidst the powerfully symbolic and hugely destructive border fence, among shifting strategies against illegal immigration, and sprinkled throughout nervous whispers in the borderland night. Although nearly a continent away from Ground Zero, this region has become an amplifier of America's anxiety.
It can also be argued that Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, has maximized that paranoia to push laws giving him unprecedented power. Foremost among them is the REAL ID Act of 2005, which allows the secretary to waive all environmental laws when building barriers and other security infrastructure along the border.
But as administrations change, many wonder whether a corresponding shift will occur within the Department of Homeland Security. Among the certainties is that Chertoff will soon be out of a job; Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano will likely succeed him. Assuming that she's confirmed by the Senate, there's plenty of speculation about whether she'll pursue a change in border policy.
There are a few teasers. For one, Napolitano is no fan of the border fence. "You show me a 50-foot wall," she famously remarked in 2005, "and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border." She boasts more direct experience with border issues than Chertoff, and shares a working relationship with key Mexican officials, including Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours. Finally, she has not been tarnished by the Bush administration's legacy of sacrificing civil rights on behalf of security.
But Napolitano does inherit an agency that's still a work in progress. In 2003, the newly created department swallowed up 22 separate agencies, from the Border Patrol and the U.S. Customs Service to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It now has approximately 180,000 employees and an annual budget of about $50 billion.
Not surprisingly, the DHS also inherited all the problems of its agency stepchildren. Among them is fiscal mismanagement; according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the DHS has failed to ensure that public funds are "being spent wisely, efficiently and effectively."
Meanwhile, specific areas within the department have gone through drastic changes--and none more so than the U.S. Border Patrol, now part of DHS under the division of Customs and Border Protection. Once a sleepy agency, the Border Patrol has grown from 4,000 agents in 1993 to nearly 18,000 today.
Meanwhile, there have been plenty of failures. Top among them is Project 28, a $20.6 billion, high-tech surveillance program developed by Boeing that suffered serious glitches when unveiled near Sasabe, Ariz.
What is the future of these programs, and overall border policy, under a President Obama? While many longtime border watchers predict a shifting course on the U.S.-Mexico border, Peter Andreas is not among them. A professor of political science and international studies at Brown University, he's author of Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide.
"For better or worse, the border is one area where I don't anticipate enormous change, in terms of border-control strategy, or the deployment of new agents," he says. "I also don't think immigration reform is going to be one of the first things on the new administration's to-do list. And that is the thing that would potentially have the greatest impact."
Andreas says the signals are clear. "Notice, for example, that immigration was a nonissue in the presidential campaign," he says. "Frankly, Obama and (John) McCain didn't have much to disagree on--immigration policy, the border, drug control, border security in general--it was just not an issue of contention between the two camps.
"It wasn't something that Obama's people actually highlighted as something they were going to bring to the table. And that was before the economy tanked. So now, as you can imagine, the priorities have shifted even more toward this not being a top priority. 'It's all about the economy, stupid.'"
Ironically, the same economic downturn is believed to be largely responsible for plummeting immigration rates. According to Border Patrol figures, agents apprehended 705,000 illegal crossers from Mexico in fiscal year 2008--the lowest rate since 675,000 people were caught in 1976.
Secretary Chertoff has been quick to claim credit for those stats. In a speech last month at Georgetown University, he credited his department for a "collapse in the number of people who come across the border illegally."
"Two years ago, I don't think people had any belief that it would be possible within the remainder of this administration to stop, let alone begin to reverse, the tide of illegal immigration," Chertoff said. "But we have done that. Thanks to measures we've taken at the border and our record-breaking apprehensions in the interior ... we see a shift in illegal immigration."
While Secretary Chertoff credits the border fence, the increased prosecution of crossers and the beefed-up Border Patrol ranks for this decline, Andreas does not. Instead, he says there should be little surprise "that there would be reductions in Mexican migration to the U.S., due partly to the substantial contraction of the U.S. economy." By contrast, "part of the boom in migrant smuggling over the last decade and a half reflects a booming U.S. economy."
Whether or not that pattern continues, Andreas looks to the past in foretelling the future. Specifically, he suggests that conservatives will continue using illegal immigration as a potent political weapon.
"I would anticipate that this will be Clinton administration déjà vu in terms of the border and immigration policy," he says. "So to the extent that the right was using immigration as a tool to bash the Clinton administration, I don't see any reason why that would not be true in an Obama administration.
"The border profile of the Obama administration will not look all that different from Clinton in that regard. Of course, the only difference is that border-control issues are now more of a 'hard-security' issue, post-Sept. 11. It's more of a general homeland-security issue rather than specifically just a U.S.-Mexico issue."
In turn, President Bush "took the model developed under Clinton for border enforcement, added more resources to it, and politicized it through the border-fence proposal. Then he attempted--but failed--to bring about immigration reform."
So what's the final prognosis if Napolitano takes the reins at DHS? "I assume that she'll be an aggressive advocate for prioritizing border security," Andreas says. "It's just that in the immediate realm of competing issues, it's certainly not a top priority."