The nation's border czar told city officials Thursday that their concerns about security and violence are overblown.
Alan Bersin, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, acknowledged that the number of illegal immigrants being captured in Arizona each year is still in the six-figure range. And he said that is likely to remain the case when the final figures for the federal fiscal year are released at the end of October.
But Bersin told city mayors and council members that it's nothing like it used to be. And he said that despite the gang violence in Mexico, it has not spilled over into Arizona.
That brought a sharp reaction from Gov. Jan Brewer who got her chance after Bersin to address the annual convention of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
"I think that we see it from a little different picture,'' she said. And Brewer scoffed as his assertion that it shows real progress that the feds will capture only about 120,000 border crossers this year in the state, down from more than 600,000 in 2000.
"When you look at 120,000 people being arrested, that's like six times the population of Nogales, five times the population of Douglas,'' the governor said. "That's a lot of people.''
More troubling, she said, the figure is "only about a fourth of what's coming across,'' with the balance slipping past Border Patrol.
Bersin said it's necessary to see how far the effort has come.
"The facts are that, with regard to violent crime, from San Diego to Brownsville, this is the safest the border has been in terms of the FBI crime statistics in 30 years,'' he said.
Bersin said there are incidents. But he took pains to try to convince his audience that the violence in Mexico, and the 40,000 people killed there since 2006 when the government sought to crack down on the gangs, has not spilled into the United States.
Still, he recognized not everyone is buying that.
"So look: it depends on how you define spillover,'' Bersin explained.
"If you define one event caused by organized crime based in Mexico as 'spillover,' then, yes, there is spillover violence in Chicago when Mexican cartels are distributing drugs,'' he continued. "And there are violent incidents on the streets of Chicago involving those distribution networks.''
Bersin said he prefers to define "spillover violence as the type of violence that's occurring in Monterrey right now (where a casino was bombed) or the violence that is happening in Juarez.''
And Bersin specifically argued that last year's murder of rancher Robert Krentz near Douglas should not be considered spillover violence.
"Every one of those (incidents) is one that should, and rightfully, tears at the fabric of our civic life and our political life,'' he said. Bersin, however, said a single incident, however tragic, is not the same as what is occurring south of the border.
Bersin knew that Brewer, -- a frequent critic of the Obama administration's border policy, would get the last word. And while he took time to thank her for prior meetings with him, he sought to prepare his audience for the criticism to follow.
"I know that politics is a contact sport,'' he said.
"That's why democratic politics exists,'' Bersin continued. "It's supposed to be a sharp exchange of views and a sharp exchange of points of view.''
Brewer said her comments and disagreements with Bersin and his superiors are not personal, saying he has "always been a gentleman'' in their discussions.
"I know you know my position,'' she said to him. "We have agreed to disagree in a lot of issues, at least in a solution.''