Fewer Immigrants Being Apprehended At Border

Fewer immigrants being apprehended at border

Houston Chronicle
July 10, 2007, 10:39PM

A sluggish U.S. economy could be slowing illegal immigration over the Southwest border, some experts say, while others believe word of tightened border security is causing migrants to stay home.

Whatever the reason, U.S. Border Patrol officials say their agents caught 24 percent fewer illegal immigrants along the Southwest border in the last nine months, compared with the same period last year. And in the five Border Patrol sectors on the Texas-Mexico frontier from El Paso to Brownsville, the declines ranged from 25 percent to 51 percent.

''It's positive, but it's not at all clear that it's permanent,” said Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000.

Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C., notes ''real changes are much more tied to the ups and downs in the U.S economy, than they are to changing enforcement at the border.”

Ramon Rivera, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman in Washington D.C., said the lower apprehensions are due to last year's deployment of 6,000 National Guard soldiers along the border, new surveillance technology and expanded detention space.

''It's just a combination, you can't just say it's one thing,” Rivera said.

In the past, a lack of detention space allowed the release of thousands of immigrants apprehended on the border from countries other than Mexico. An aggressive deportation program, paired with new detention facilities, has ended the practice of releasing so-called OTMs, Rivera said.

''Now, we are really focusing on apprehensions and the word gets back on the grapevine … that it's not as easy as it used to be,” Rivera said.

In the Del Rio sector, where apprehensions dropped 51 percent, a pilot program that prosecutes all migrants caught crossing the border illegally has yielded a dramatic drop in apprehensions, Rivera said. In most areas on the southern border, Mexican citizens are not prosecuted for unauthorized entry, but are allowed to voluntarily return home after they are checked for outstanding warrants.

'' Del Rio is really pushing sending people to jail,” Rivera said. ''Once the word got out that … nobody was going to be released and returned, that resulted in a 50 percent drop.”

Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform in Washington D.C., said a strong message was sent by last month's defeat of a immigration reform bill that would have given illegal residents a path to citizenship.

''Border crossing was decreasing before the defeat of the Senate bill,” said Dane, referring to the bipartisan measure supported by the Bush Administration. ''But if there was a sense we were cracking down before, that has been amplified by the defeat. Enough is enough.”

However, experts including Meissner note the slowdown in border apprehensions corresponds with declined in construction activity and home building. Illegal immigration, the former INS chief said, is a function of the economy and the laws of supply and demand.

“We know in this same period of time there has been a cooling of the economy particularly in the construction sector, one that employes a lot of unauthorized immigrants,” Meissner said.

On Monday, the U.S. government began a fourth summer of costly, and controversial, chartered flights to return illegal Mexican immigrants to the interior of the country after they are detained on the border.

The program is designed to keep immigrants from attempting repeated crossings in hot summer months, and has focused on the Arizona border where hundreds die each year. Over the past three years, the U.S. government has paid to fly 49,410 Mexicans from border towns to Mexico City and then bused them to their hometowns.

Staff writer Michelle Mittelstadt contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.