TUCSON - For the first time, Arizona reported more apprehensions of illegal immigrants than California, New Mexico and Texas combined.
The latest landmark from fiscal 2004 numbers comes after seven consecutive years in which the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector led the nation in apprehensions. And it is prompting some who have worked to stem the tide to ask why strategies successful elsewhere along the border have not worked in Arizona.
‘‘It’s time they got that job done,’’ said Johnny Williams, a longtime Border Patrol agent who oversaw the Western region of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1998 to 2002.
Since the mid-1990s, the Border Patrol has fortified its busiest sectors with walls, agents and technology in hope of deterring illegal immigrants and smugglers.
The agency believes proof of success lies in fewer apprehensions, which indicates fewer people are trying to cross.
While the Border Patrol says it has taken the same approach in Arizona as in California and Texas, the results have been markedly different.
In the years since the agency launched operations around San Diego and El Paso and in southern Texas, apprehensions in those sectors have fallen a combined 64 percent.
By contrast, the share of traffic moving through the Tucson sector, stretching from New Mexico to the Yuma County line, has continued to increase, prompting national attention for rising death tolls, volunteer civilian border patrols and a recent ballot initiative aimed at illegal immigrants.
Since 1994, the share of apprehensions along the Mexican border reported in the Tucson sector has grown from 14 percent to more than 43 percent. Along the entire Arizona border, the share has grown from 16 percent to 52 percent.
Initially, a surge in illegal immigration through Arizona was traced to the 1994 launch of Operation Gatekeeper in the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector, which drove substantial numbers of illegal immigrants out of the Tijuana corridor.
Williams, the chief agent in San Diego at the time, said the sector, which stretches inland from the Pacific Ocean for 66 miles, was relatively easy to control.
The Tucson sector, which covers at least 260 miles of border, is ‘‘large enough and has enough activity to be two sectors,’’ Williams said.
The Tucson sector also was slated for a forces buildup in the mid-’90s, but by some accounts the sector did not receive the funding needed to yield the same results seen in California.
According to Border Patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the agency’s Web site, Operation Safeguard began in Tucson in 1995. But Andy Adame, a spokesman for the Tucson sector, said funds and equipment did not arrive until 1998.
Indeed, Williams also said pressures to move more resources to Texas deprived funds in the Tucson sector just as it was becoming the nation’s busiest.
But perhaps one reason the Tucson sector remains the most popular for illegal immigrants, others said, is that it offers natural advantages to smugglers that the Border Patrol simply cannot control.
An extensive road network in northern Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona, for example, affords relatively easy paths to and from the border. Immigration authorities also say Phoenix, Tucson and even Las Vegas serve as convenient transportation hubs for sending migrants around the country.
Furthermore, southern Arizona contains an abundance of federally protected land with few roads and strict limits on where agents may take their vehicles.
Nearly 75 percent of land abutting the border in the sector carries access restrictions — such as the Tohono O’odham Nation, and parks and wildlife refuges —including some areas that agents may reach only by foot or horseback, Adame said.
Even as the Border Patrol has spent millions on new technology, Adame said it also has more than doubled the size of its horse fleet.
Mike Albon, a spokesman for Local 2544, a union representing Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector, said covering the area with agents alone simply is not possible.
‘‘That would require much more manpower than they’re willing to give or the budget will permit,’’ said Albon, who retired in 2001 after more than 30 years with the Border Patrol.
Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., whose district includes Cochise County along the U.S.-Mexico border, said he rarely heard complaints about illegal immigration after entering office in 1984. Now, he said, ‘‘On a list of 10 issues, it would be one through seven or one through eight.’’
One of his constituents, Renada Perea of Sierra Vista, said she recently began to worry for the safety of her parents, who have lived in nearby Huachuca City for 20 years.
Perea said her mother found a blanket inside her car one morning that did not belong to her, leading her to believe that an illegal immigrant had slept inside.
‘‘I don’t think they’ve ever had any violence or anything like that, but you never know,’’ she said. ‘‘You hear about the violence, and my parents are elderly.’’
Another common complaint, especially among property owners along the border, involves the piles of trash left in the wake of migrants.
The public anger that has accompanied Arizona’s immigration crisis, observers note, closely resembles frustrations seen in California 10 years ago.
Shortly after the Border Patrol launched Gatekeeper in San Diego, California voters passed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that restricted public benefits to illegal immigrants. Though later struck down in federal court, many say it inspired Arizona’s Proposition 200, a similar measure that won approval Nov. 2 and became law Dec. 22.
Adame said the Tucson sector has indefinitely extended the Arizona Border Control Initiative, a buildup started in June that added Black Hawk helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles and increased the number of agents to more than 2,000.
‘‘Although we don’t have control of it yet, we’re definitely moving toward that goal,’’ Adame said.