(NOGALES, Ariz.) — Four of the U.S. senators leading the charge on immigration reform got more than they expected Wednesday when they came to Nogales, Ariz., to check on border security.
Just a few steps away from where they stood with Customs and Border Patrol officials, the problem facing the nation unfolded before their eyes: A young woman was sprinting her way out of Mexico, then climbing a security fence, only to be caught by the border patrol within seconds.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tweeted about the event, saying: “Just witnessed a woman successfully climb an 18-ft bollard fence a few yards from us in Nogales. And Border Patrol successfully apprehended her, but incident is another reminder that threats to our border security are real.”
Arizona’s Senate delegation, McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, both Republicans, hosted Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., for a tour along the border in Nogales, part of the Tucson sector. All four senators are members of the so-called “Gang of Eight” that is working on a solution to the nation’s immigration issues.
ABC News was at the scene of the apprehension exclusively and later asked the senators from out of state what they thought of the experience.
“Well, I’d have to know all the details there to give you a judgment,” Schumer said. “One of the things we learned is that a lot of people cross the border are doing it for drug purposes, too. But I don’t know what happened in this situation.”
The incident was “surprising” to Bennet.
“I just have never seen it before,” he said.
For McCain, the incident was all too normal.
“One of the sad things about all of this is that most of those people who jump over the fence are doing that because they want a better life,” he said at the news conference following the tour. “And I understand that. So we separate the drug cartels from individuals or somebody trying to cross over so they improve their lives.”
The Border Patrol has more agents than ever, nearly 22,000, with 651 miles of fence along the 1,969-mile-long border.
Technology assists the boots on the ground, with 125 airplanes and six drones patrolling the Mexican frontier working with Border Patrol agents to make crossing the border illegally more difficult than ever.
In fact, apprehensions like the ones the senators saw are down 78 percent from their peak in 2000.
President Obama, in interviews with ABC News’ partner, Univision, said Wednesday he believes the border is secure enough to begin the reforms that would bring the 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.
“It’s never going to be 110-percent perfect, but what we can do is to continue to improve it and, at the same time, provide a clear pathway for those who are already here and who’ve invested their lives here,” the president said.
Counter to stereotype, six of the nation’s 10 safest cities are on or near the border. El Paso, Texas, which sits just a few miles from Juarez, Mexico, has the lowest crime rate in the nation three years running.
El Paso Mayor John Cook said it’s time to start immigration reform now “because [the] border is secure.”
“For the most part, people who come into the United States don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want to commit crimes,” he said. “They just want to make a living. I call them economic refugees [because] they just came to try to secure the American dream and a better life for their families, not to commit crimes.”
Back in Arizona, McCain was in his home state to convince skeptics from his base that border security is improving. He gave this qualified endorsement.
“With the proper use of technology, with the proper coordination between different agencies, [I believe] that we will be able to say that we have a degree of border security that would allow people to move forward to a path of citizenship,” McCain said.
The senators said they hope to have an agreement on an immigration reform bill soon.
“We hope to have a bill agreed to and done the day we come back,” Schumer said.
Both McCain and Schumer recognized that compromise was key.
“With this legislation, no one will be totally happy because we are having to make compromises, and that’s what makes for good legislation, is compromise that brings everybody together,” McCain said.
They added that the reforms cannot be passed piecemeal and will need to be passed as a complete unit.
The four senators who did not make the tour hope to make one in the near future. They already had plans for the recess when it was organized.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Jeremy Diamond, CNN
Jethro Mullen and Matt Egan, CNN
Stephen Collinson, CNN
Scott Stuntz, Teton Valley News & Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com