This week we take you on a dangerous and sobering journey to see first hand what's happening on our Southern border - without the spin. We visited one of the busiest ports of entry for both legal and illegal traffic. It's the predominantly Hispanic city of Laredo, Texas. During our visit, one overarching theme emerged: despite what you may think: they're bullish on border security.
When it comes to what defines the border town of Laredo, Texas, Mayor Pete Saenz says it's their complex relationship with Mexico.
Pete Saenz: Laredo is the number one land port of the entire Americas. We do over 200 billion dollars worth of trade here in our port of Laredo. There's a lot of foot traffic as well, people commute daily. They come, they shop, they work, they come visit family.
There's no wall here, not even a fence. The only thing that separates two nations is the Rio Grande River. Seventeen thousand pedestrians a day cross the river using the Gateway to Americas bridge. When we tried it out, the Mexicans didn't even check passports or ID as we entered Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Pete Saenz: Culturally, we're Hispanic primarily. 95 percent Hispanic. We're very closely connected to Mexico. We're true Americans, but of course, our culture is tied to Mexico, since we're here in the border, we have family on the other side, in the Mexican side.
With such close ties, you might be surprised to hear the prevailing view.
Pete Saenz: On the US side, we want a secured border. We definitely need that frankly. We're one of the first proponents of that.
Laredo police chief Claudio Trevino.
Claudio Trevino: We have a border, we respect the border, we enforce the border and we are not, definitely not, a sanctuary city. Never been one.
Like other U.S. border communities, Laredo has suffered the impact of human trafficking and Mexican drug cartels. In 2016, the Border Patrol picked up more than 36 thousand illegal immigrants in the two counties that make up the Laredo sector.
Sharyl Attkisson: That doesn't count the ones who got away.
Joe Baeza: Yes.
Joe Baeza is Laredo Police Department's public information officer.
Joe Baeza: We understand that a lot of people who aren't from the border communities have a perception that because we're the same ethnicity that somehow we're more inviting, more compassionate, with regards to just opening up the borders and allowing everybody just to kind of pour on into the United States, but that couldn't be further from the truth. We understand the volatility in Mexico.
To see for ourselves, we donned bulletproof vests and boarded an airboat escorted by armed Border Patrol agents. Gabriel Acosta is Assistant Chief Patrol Agent for the Laredo Sector.
Sharyl Attkisson: I notice that some parts of the river are very narrow, it looks like would not be hard to float or swim across.
Gabriel Acosta: It's very easy to cross this river and in some places, it's as shallow as like two feet.
We're about to witness that first hand. Our interview is interrupted by a call.
Gabriel Acosta: Where? 1-17?
Border Patrol cameras have spotted a group of illegal immigrants in the river less than a half mile away. We race to the scene and find three men scurrying back to the Mexican side.
Gabriel Acosta: As soon as we started heading back down river, that's when they realized, hey, the boats are coming, let's head back south.
They're not drug traffickers, Acosta tells us, or they'd be waving the middle finger.
Gabriel Acosta: You literally have seconds to make the interdiction.
Then they're in a car, and they're gone.
Gabriel Acosta: Or then they're in a car, and they're gone. You saw the lookout on the Mexican side. I guarantee you there's lookouts on the US side, that were calling the all clear.
As both a candidate and as President, Donald Trump has promised to stem the illegal traffic.
Donald Trump: We've got a border, the southern border is like a piece of Swiss cheese, and we'll talk about it, we will build the wall, yes. We will build the wall.
In Laredo, they credit the President's message with a new trend.
Sharyl Attkisson: What are the patterns you're noticing in 2017?
Gabriel Acosta: We've noticed a drop of at least 30 percent compared to this time last year here in this geographical area in the south Texas corridor, and then throughout the entire southwest border, we're looking at over 60 percent fewer apprehensions.
Sharyl Attkisson: That's pretty huge.
Gabriel Acosta: It is.
Sharyl Attkisson: Do you attribute that in part to the idea they may have that it's, they're not going to be able to stay, or that it would be more difficult?
Gabriel Acosta: Absolutely.
As soon as we're back on land, another call comes in, this time underground sensors have tipped-off agents to a group of drug traffickers.
Scott Good: Out in this area.
Scott Good leads the Laredo Sector Border Patrol.
Scott Good: They absconded back to Mexico and left the marijuana here which will be taken back to Laredo Sector to be processed for destruction. I know if you see some of these agents, you know, they're covered in sweat, they're out running, chasing people down on foot through this brush. You know, vehicles can't get through this.
While here, there's word that two illegal immigrants have been caught in the area we just left. As dusk falls, we go on patrol around a 7-mile stretch of Laredo sector. We locate the spot in thick vegetation by the river where agents think drug traffickers brought ashore the pot. The brush around the Rio Grande is full of well-worn paths that agents say have been used for illegal traffic for years. In this environment, it's not difficult for criminals to give Border Patrol the slip. Agents risk their lives, tracking suspects on foot, sometimes alone, where they may come face-to-face with heavily armed cartel thugs.
Scott Good: The smugglers don't care at all about human life. They're very callous. They see people as a commodity, just like the marijuana that they cross or the cocaine that they cross.
Sharyl Attkisson: Your bulletproof vest and the weapon you're carrying, reminds us all these aren't all just nice people trying to enter. You also deal with a violent criminal element.
Gabriel Acosta: We do.
Gabriel Acosta: We do on a daily basis. The United States Border Patrol is the most assaulted law enforcement agency in the United States. Our agents get assaulted on a daily basis, multiple times a day.
When dark falls, we work our way to the edge of the Rio Grande and look through infrared binoculars. That's a person standing on the Mexican bank, maybe a lookout or someone waiting for the chance to cross. Not far away, we hear radio chatter that two more illegal immigrants have been picked up. On our way back to the SUV, we see two agents patrolling on ATVs. We hear more radio chatter eight illegal immigrants have come ashore. Six are eventually caught, two escape back south. Meantime, we're onto a group that a Border Patrol camera spotted crossing the river and loading into a light blue Grand Marquis.
Dispatch: in color Grand Marquis
Local police join the chase. When the suspects don't pull over, the cops give up for safety reasons and let them go. Here in the field, it's easy to see that the best technology they have only goes so far. Cameras and sensors can spot the illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. But catching them is another matter. It's a numbers game. A certain number will slip through. Most Americans will never visit a US border town. One thing the officials in Laredo want the rest of the country to know is, they're in the fight.
Gabriel Acosta: People are getting the message that if you do come across illegally, and you're apprehended, you will be sent back.
Pete Saenz: There's a misconception out there, just because we are so closely tied with Mexico, our culture is Mexican-y, Spanish. It doesn't mean that we're not Americans. You know, we've died for our country, we're here for our country, we salute the flag, so we are full-blooded Americans. Obviously, we lean towards our culture, just like any other ethnicity, but we're Americans first, and that's important.