TUCSON, AZ: Folks in Washington think that they not only have all the answers, they think they don’t have to leave town to get them. They’re wrong.

“Washington does not have all the answers.” There is no issue that that truism is truer for than understanding the challenge of securing the nation’s broken borders. And, there is no place to understand border problems better than Nogales, Arizona. This week that is where I went.

For over a thousand years Nogales has been at the crossroads of people moving north and south. Nothing’s changed. Today it is Arizona’s largest border town, where Interstate 19 meets the border with Mexico. It is ground-zero in the border wars.

You can learn a lot in Nogales. America’s borders are as much a strength as a weakness. Our borders are an engine for the American economy. Every year about $9 billion in trade cross the Nogales port of entry. About 300,000 trucks transit the border here. If you bought any fresh produce in the grocery store over the winter months odds are better than fifty-fifty it came off a truck that drove through here. The fruit and vegetable trade that passes through Nogales accounts for about 65 percent of U.S. winter produce.

In Nogales they also know an awful lot about the problems of being a border town. The most serious ones are the trade we don’t want—cross-border bartering in drugs, money, people, and guns—the four horseman of the border apocalypse.

Killing Time on the Border

Here is what I found on visit to the border in Arizona—people die on the border because of lack of adequate security.

It is easy to add up the real costs of border insecurity—they are pretty daunting. They include violence and crime that prey on communities on both sides of the border. Many of the victims include individuals trying to sneak into the United States. In some cases, the smuggling rings that move people collude with criminal gangs that rob and rape their clients. In others cases, gangs steal their human cargo from one another and then hold them for ransom—demanding additional fees to deliver them into the U.S. or not turning them over to American authorities.

Immigration and Broken Borders

The biggest part of the problem of trying to keep people from illegally crossing the border—is the ones already here.

Over 12 million people living successfully illegally inside the United States create a magnet drawing more in their wake. That means trouble for the people of Nogales, Arizona, and surrounding communities.

An army of illegal border-crossers severely complicates the challenge of focusing on the criminal smuggling gangs that can make the border such a dangerous place. It is a viscous cycle. Dealing with the human wave detracts authorities from focusing on the criminals—as criminal gangs thrive the border gets more out of control—as authorities lose control of the border—it makes crossing the border illegally more attractive.

Who are You?

Knowing who you are is a critical element of border security—because if Customs and Border Protection, or CBP (part of the Department of Homeland Security) knows who you are they can pretty much tell if you are legally entitled to enter to U.S.  It also helps them find bad people. On average, at the Nogales port of entry every week they will arrest one to a dozen criminal aliens (people with felony records). On average, up to a half dozen of them will be sexual predators.

At the crossing station in Nogales, CBP agents showed the biggest part of the problem—a table with hundreds of documents that in the past had been authorized as proof of U.S. citizenship or other documentation to enter the U.S. from Mexico—many of them were fraudulent documents at that. Adequately inspecting this deluge of documents at the border was simply mission impossible.

The Department of Homeland Security came up with a simple and effective answer—reduce the number of documents that serve as proof of US citizenship to three—a passport, a State Department issued border crossing card, or a state driver’s license that meets national standards (as set by the REAL ID Act).  Implementing this requirement simply makes great sense.

The greatest threats to border security are in the Mexico—and the United States.

The greatest danger to border security is the criminal gangs smuggling drugs, people, weapons, and money across the border. The border is the last place to fight these people. Stopping them requires going after the leaders, the networks, and the operations in the US and Mexico that launch bad people and things towards the border.

Getting south-north migration under control requires more that just border security. On the US side it requires serious workplace and immigration enforcement and adequate legal means of migration to get the US economy the workers it needs. On the Mexican side, it requires serious economic and governance reforms that creates jobs and gives people a reason to come back home. These initiatives in conjunction with better border security will make America’s borders safe and secure. Nothing less will do.