NOGALES, Ariz After listening to a fiery national debate about the impact of illegal immigration and drug smuggling over the porous U.S.-Mexico border, retiree Edgar King figured he would make up his own mind about the issue.
"You hear so much about it, we had to go and see it for ourselves," said King, 82, riding on a novel day tour down to the Arizona-Mexico border with his wife Suzette.
The couple are among visitors signing up for Tucson-based travel firm Gray Line Tours' "Border Crisis: Fact or Fiction" excursion that takes truth-seeking day trippers on a close-up visit to the storied international line.
The desert state straddles the most furiously trafficked stretch of the southwest border for drug and human smugglers from Mexico, and has become ground zero for the national debate about how best to tackle it.
For $89, visitors get to meet the people who live, work and do business on the international line, as well as those whose job it is to police it, arresting several hundred illegal immigrants a day, and seizing over a ton of narcotics.
Driving down the blacktop from Tucson, tourists with sun block and ample water supplies visit the U.S. government's latest model of a steel border fence in Nogales that allows police a clear view through into Sonora, Mexico.
They get to walk up over a pedestrian bridge and look down on U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspectors as they work in revving lines of traffic at the port of entry trying to distinguish cars carrying narcotics up from Mexico from legitimate travellers.
"I have been on bus tours in Italy, but never one like this," said Joe Pisconski, 69, a retiree from Oro Valley, near Tucson, who joined around half a dozen visitors and several reporters on the eight-hour trip on Friday.
"It's very informative on a lot of different issues we're facing, It really opens your eyes," he added.
'A RICH POINT OF VIEW'
Republicans in the U.S. Congress complain that the nearly 2,000-mile border is wide open to violence spilling over from Mexico, where 15,000 people were murdered in violence related to drug cartels last year.
But President Barack Obama's Democratic administration says additional federal agents, National Guard troops and technology have made it more secure than ever before.
Helping visitors make up their own minds, the tour linked up with a customs and border liaison officer over lunch who painted a vivid picture of the life of an inspector, hunting for marijuana hidden in tins of jalapeno peppers or heroin in the block of a car engine, and sometimes facing death threats.
They also met a rancher whose land straddles 10 miles of the Mexico border, and who is concerned about increasingly violent drug smugglers and bandits, accused of shooting dead a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, near the ranch in December.
The packed itinerary also takes in a visit to an association of produce importers who need to get $2 billion in perishable Mexican watermelons, mangoes and tomatoes over the border and on to U.S. supermarket shelves before they spoil.
Sitting on the bus headed back to Tucson, Rita Marco, 48, said the day trip had succeeded in bringing life to issues stripped of nuance by the stark political debate.
"I think that it's really easy to get caught up in the rhetoric in either side of the issue. What we heard today is so much richer than one point of view of another," she said.
Retiree Steve Baumgarten said that the tour, which also took in a water station set up in the desert for illegal immigrants, had helped him gain a broader perspective.
"What I'm finding out today is that ... this isn't a single-issue problem. It's going to take a very complex set of answers to solve it." (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune)