Near the Naco port of entry, a well-maintained gravel border road leads west toward the Huachuca Mountains. Yards of steel vehicle barrier abut tall, dark-green landing mats or barbwire fence as far as the eye can see.
A Border Patrol agent nods grimly from behind his mirrored shades, his Chevy Tahoe powdered with red dust from patrolling the country against terrorists, illegal immigrants and drugs.
Homeland Security boasts, truthfully, that there's been no terror attack on U.S. soil for five years. Thousands of pounds of narcotics were seized; hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were captured in the Tucson sector alone; nearly a million attempts to enter the country were stopped by the time the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.
You want to believe. The narcotics can be stopped; the migration of economic refugees can be controlled. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar is right that agents are hard at work for the simple reason: "This is about securing America's borders."
Then you find the hobbyhorse, and a creepier reality sets in.
I didn't notice it at first; maybe because it was so out of place, it didn't register. But between a pile of vehicle-barrier steel and a blue Porta-Potty sat the hobbyhorse.
Someone had fun building the thing: an old bicycle handlebar for the handle, a welded piece of rebar for the seatback and horseshoes for the feet, all sitting on an immense metal spring, with a white tire rim for the base.
To give them credit, the Tucson Sector public information office admitted readily that the hobbyhorse belongs to them. It was made a long time ago, and somehow, it turned up on the border road.
"Obviously, there are better uses of our time than building stuff like that," said Gustavo Soto from the sector's media office.
No agent has admitted to riding it, he says.
One has to be careful not to make too much of these things. After all, U.S. Border Patrol agents account for the majority of our security along the 1,951 miles of Mexican border. They save lives, arrest gang members and nab smugglers, all for about $2 billion a year. We've spent 150 times that amount trying to secure Iraq.
But it's disturbing that in the midst of a national debate over what to do with 12-30 million illegal immigrants in the country, some federal agent is out riding a hobbyhorse.
It's sad but also indicative of a larger problem: We don't have it in us. We don't have a security culture five years after Sept. 11, nor did we five years before.
Throwing up its hands, Homeland Security is outsourcing securing the border. Last month, it rewarded a $67 million contract to the Boeing Company in hopes that it can develop sensors that do more than identify cows.
A Southern Arizona drug agent laughed when I suggested we seize 10 percent of all drugs coming into the country.
"Ten? In a good year, when we've identified warehouses and growing fields, maybe 10 percent," he said. "At most."
A million illegal entry attempts are stopped every year. But by U.S. Customs and Border Protection's own admission, half a million people successfully slip into the country every year, and we have little idea who they are.
The U.S. Senate recently approved $1.2 billion for 700 miles of border fence, but it's a shell game. Estimates are that at least twice that amount is needed to build those 700 miles of fence. Maybe the Senate is waiting for us to forget?
A federal agent in the Arizona desert believes it's too late, that the American public won't forget. "I think that there is a growing number of people across the country who are sick of the invasion and want it stopped regardless of what it takes," he said.
He might be right. But unless border security becomes a debate that lasts beyond presidential and midterm elections, we're stuck with what we have: a piece of political theater, nothing more.