Illegal Immigrant Arrests Plunge Along Southwest Border

Illegal immigrant arrests plunge along Southwest border
Government credits boost in patrols, while immigration experts cite tough times in the U.S. economy

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 30, 2008, 11:45PM

Arrests of illegal immigrants have plummeted in parts of Texas and along most of the Southwest border, where government agents in one Arizona sector have detained 78 percent fewer border crossers than last year.

So far this fiscal year, apprehensions are down in all but two of the nine U.S. Border Patrol sectors on the U.S.-Mexico border, officials confirmed. During the first 11 months of the fiscal year starting October 2007, roughly 660,000 illegal immigrants were detained along the Southwest border, an 18.4 percent drop from the same period last year.

The dropoff in apprehensions is dramatic considering that agents detained 1.6 million illegal immigrants on the Mexico border as recently as fiscal year 2000.

Government officials traditionally cite these decreases in apprehensions as proof that fewer illegal immigrants are slipping across the border.

There's no way, however, to determine how many immigrants successfully sneak into the U.S.

Border Patrol officials attribute the decline to an ongoing buildup of manpower, infrastructure and technology on the border, but immigration experts say the faltering U.S. economy is a significant factor. The Bush administration sent National Guard units to the border temporarily until Border Patrol could increase its ranks to 18,000 agents by year's end.

''It could be (the economy), but I know the measures we have taken have had a huge impact on illegal alien traffic in those areas,” said Jason Ciliberti, a supervisory Border Patrol agent in Washington.

Apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley patrol sector, however, went up 3 percent this year.

Numbers can be deceptive

Some experts are often skeptical of reading too much into the Border Patrol numbers.

''When the number of apprehensions are up, they claim it's a sign of success because they're apprehending more,” said Michael A. Olivas, professor of immigration law at the University of Houston. ''When it's down, it's because they're deterring more. And either of those is efficacious, from their point of view they've got it covered coming and going.”

The overall apprehension trends, coupled with a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, give further credence to the idea that growth of the nation's illegal immigrant population is slowing.

Michael Fix, vice president and director of studies at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said the nation's weak construction industry and other sectors have slowed the entry of undocumented workers. Experts say the key force behind immigration patterns historically is economics. Immigrants follow jobs.

''It's as much an indicator of the economy as of stepped-up enforcement,” said Fix of the declining arrests. ''If you look at it broadly, what you see is the rate of increase of immigrants is slowing a little bit.”

Last week, the Census Bureau reported that immigration slowed in 2007, when 500,000 immigrants entered the U.S., down from 1.8 million the year before. These figures include legal and illegal immigrants.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security estimated there were 11.8 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. as of January 2007. For Texas, the estimate is 1.7 million, the second most in the U.S. behind California.

60% drop in El Paso

Officials provided more recent statistics on apprehensions for individual Border Patrol sectors.

In the El Paso sector, the Border Patrol detained 30,126 illegal immigrants through Sept. 27 of this fiscal year compared to 75,169 arrests during the same period last year, a drop of 60 percent, said Doug Mosier, public affairs officer for the El Paso sector. This region covers all of New Mexico and the two western-most counties in Texas.

''It's hard to nail it down to any one particular thing, but it all ties into a combination of resources we've acquired,” Mosier said. ''We have more agents, technology and infrastructure than ever before in the El Paso sector's history.”

Mosier said when Operation Hold the Line began in 1993, the first Border Patrol operation to station agents directly on the river bank, the El Paso sector had 600 agents. Today, there are 2,550 agents on patrol.

''Even our drug seizures are down across the board,” Mosier said. ''And that tells us there are fewer people crossing our area of the border, whether it's to come across and look for a job or to commit a crime.”

Crossing areas shift

Through Sept. 27 this fiscal year, arrests are down 78 percent in the Yuma sector in Arizona, down 27 percent in El Centro in California, down 23 percent in Laredo, and 16 percent fewer in the busy Tucson, Ariz., sector, and 9 percent lower in the Del Rio sector.

In addition to Rio Grande Valley, the San Diego sector showed a slight increase in arrests.

''The reason for that (increases) is in the areas where you've seen these decreases, like Yuma, that's very much attributable to getting the proper mix of personnel, technology and infrastructure at our border,” Ciliberti said.

When the Border Patrol ramped up enforcement in the Tucson and San Diego sectors, immigrants ''shifted overnight” to crossing areas in Yuma, Ciliberti said.

After beefing up the Yuma sector and implementing a zero-tolerance policy for first-time offenders arrests fell from 138,400 in fiscal year 2005 to 38,000 in 2007.