Reporting from Washington — Battling the widespread perception that U.S. border cities have become more dangerous, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Monday called on public officials to stop exaggerating the violence on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico and "be honest with the people we serve."
In a speech in El Paso, Napolitano cited FBI statistics showing that violent crime rates in Southwest border counties are down 30% over the last two decades and are "among the lowest in the nation."
Napolitano's effort to change the public perception of danger follows a heated campaign season last fall that saw candidates in border states frequently emphasizing the effects of illegal immigration on their communities.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, was criticized during the campaign for saying that headless bodies were being found in the Arizona desert, a statement she retracted after local coroners could not confirm her claim.
A few mayors in the region recently have said that the portrayal of their towns as dangerous has hurt them economically.
"Let's stick with the facts," Napolitano said. "We need to be up front and clear about what's really happening along our borders."
Even as the drug war has escalated just south of the border, crime rates in Arizona border towns have remained essentially flat, said Napolitano, citing the addition of personnel and technology in the region.
She added that the number of illegal immigrants apprehended at the border — an indication of illegal cross-border traffic — has decreased 36% over the last two years.
But Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Brewer, said: "The issue is there are tens of thousands of people being murdered immediately across the border in Mexico by the cartels. And the concern is that the violence by the cartels will begin spilling across the border."
For Arizona cattle ranchers, the day-to-day reality of drug and people smugglers traversing their property is "far more impacting" than Napolitano's comments indicate, said Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.).
"Statistics and averages might mean something to government bureaucrats and analysts in Washington, but try telling the people who deal with these realities every day that the violence along the border has subsided," said Quayle, who won his congressional seat in the Republican surge in November.
Angela Kelley, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington, argued that there was a "pretty big disconnect" between the public perception about safety along the border and what the statistics showed.
"When you have politicians stirring the pot and turning up the heat on people's emotions and fear levels, you don't have a constructive debate on what to do," she said.
But she added: "Facts matter, but only to a point … because it is what citizens believe that defines the debate and sets the agenda in Washington. We can't be tone deaf to what the public believes."
Since 2004, the Border Patrol has doubled in size to more than 20,700 agents. Napolitano added that the Department of Homeland Security had increased the number of intelligence analysts focused on cartel violence.
With the help of a $600-million infusion of cash approved by Congress in 2010, the department will add 1,000 Border Patrol agents this year, 250 officers at ports of entry and 250 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Napolitano said.
The increase comes as 1,200 National Guard troops that President Obama deployed to the border last year plan to stand down by the end of the summer.