MEXICO CITY — It's one of the safest parts of America, and it's getting safer.
It's the U.S.-Mexico border, and even as politicians say more federal troops are needed to fight rising violence, government data show it actually isn't so dangerous after all.
The top four big cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, according to a new FBI report. And an in-house Customs and Border Protection report shows that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than street police in most U.S. cities.
The Customs and Border Protection study, obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, shows 3 percent of Border Patrol agents and officers were assaulted last year, mostly when assailants threw rocks at them. That compares with 11 percent of police officers and sheriff's deputies assaulted during the same period, usually with guns or knives.
In addition, violent attacks against agents declined in 2009 along most of the border for the first time in seven years. So far this year assaults are slightly up, but data are incomplete.
"The border is safer now than it's ever been," said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling.
He said one factor is that with fewer jobs available amid the U.S. recession, illegal immigration has dropped. And responding to security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the Border Patrol has doubled the number of agents in the region since 2004.
Nonetheless, border lawmakers and governors say their region is under siege.
"Violence in the vicinity of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to increase at an alarming rate. We believe that this violence represents a serious threat to the national security of the United States as well as a serious threat to U.S. citizens that live along the 1,969-mile long border," a dozen bipartisan members of Congress from border states wrote President Obama.
In response to those concerns, Obama pledged to send 1,200 National Guard troops to help and spend an extra $500 million on border security.
FBI crime reports for 2009 show violent crime in Arizona declined. And violent crimes in southwest border counties are among the lowest in the nation per capita — they've dropped by more than 30 percent in the last two decades. Of America's 25 largest cities, San Diego — with one out of four residents an immigrant — has the lowest violent crime rate.
Concerns about danger come, in part, from Mexico, where raging cartel violence has taken 23,000 lives in three years, often within view of the U.S. border. There's frequent talk of the potential for that violence to spread across the border, although so far it hasn't happened to any significant degree.