Arrests Along Border Drop Everywhere But Here

Arrests along the border drop everywhere but here

By Edward Sifuentes
The North County Times (Escondido, CA), June 27, 2009

The number of illegal immigrants caught at the nation's borders with Mexico and Canada in 2008 dropped to its lowest point in more than 30 years —- except in San Diego County.

Experts say the overall drop is because of the nation's sagging economy and increased security measures.

The tightened security, however, is driving illegal immigrant traffic from other areas to San Diego County, where the number of arrests has increased in recent years.

Since the mid-1980s, immigration authorities nationwide typically arrested more than 1 million people each year, but that number has seen a steep decline recently as border enforcement tightened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the economy began to falter in 2007.

'Potential migrants are being discouraged primarily by the lack of an assured job in the United States,' said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.

Nationwide, the U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies arrested 723,840 people in 2008, or about 466,000 fewer people than the 1,189,031 arrested in 2005, according to a report released by the Department of Homeland Security earlier this month.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama launched a fresh effort toward a comprehensive immigration overhaul. He said that a bipartisan bill on the 'sensitive and volatile political issue' will be difficult but must get under way this year.

Stricter enforcement, including more Border Patrol officers and more fencing, is also making it tougher to cross the border illegally, said Mark Endicott, a spokesman for the agency in San Diego.

However, the number of arrests in San Diego County's section of the border has jumped in recent years, from 126,904 in 2005 to 162,390 in 2008. That could be primarily because of a shift in illegal immigration routes from Arizona to California, Endicott said.

San Diego spike

San Diego County was one of the primary routes illegal immigrants used to take to enter the U.S. Starting in the 1990s, the federal government began to build more fences and increase the number of Border Patrol agents in the area, which led an increasing number of illegal immigrants trying to enter through other areas of the border such as Arizona.

In recent years, the federal government bolstered the number of agents in Arizona, making San Diego County once again a favorite spot for human smugglers.

So far this year, arrests are down in the San Diego County area, from 110,155 at this time in 2008 to 86,545 this year through May 31, Endicott said.

The lower number of arrests at the border may be because of 'declining U.S. economic activity and enhanced border enforcement,' according to the Department of Homeland Security's report.

Of the 723,840 people arrested in 2008, 97 percent were captured at the border with Mexico. Most of them, 661,773 people, were Mexicans, primarily men between the ages of 18 and 44.

The report did not include other illegal immigrants who overstayed their visas or who were caught in the country's interior.

The number of people attempting to come illegally may be dropping because family members living in the U.S. who lend them money to pay smugglers have less money to give, Cornelius said.

Increased enforcement at the border has pushed up the cost of hiring a smuggler from about $1,000 in 2001 to about $3,000 in 2007, he added.

Cash-strapped relatives can't afford the cost, and potential migrants are no longer assured that they will have jobs to repay the loans when they get here.

'Their financial capacity to migrate has been reduced by the U.S. economic crisis, which has reduced working hours and therefore the disposable income of their U.S.-based relatives, who are the usual source of the loans to pay people-smugglers,' Cornelius said.

Employer crackdown

Bryan Griffith, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates stricter immigration enforcement, said he agreed that the struggling economy is partly responsible. But he also credited increased interior enforcement efforts.

Griffith said a crackdown on high-profile employers who hire illegal immigrants is one of the main reasons why fewer people may be attempting to come into the country illegally.

In November 2007, immigration officials began a crackdown at Smithfield Foods' giant slaughterhouse in North Carolina, eventually arresting 21 illegal immigrants at the plant and rousting others from their trailers in the middle of the night.

Since then, thousands of illegal immigrants have been arrested in large-scale operations at poultry plants, restaurants and factories.

Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, said those operations have been key in sending the message to would-be illegal immigrants that the federal government is serious about enforcing its immigration laws.

Bilbray also called for stepped-up interior immigration enforcement requiring employers to verify employees' names and Social Security numbers using a government computer database called E-Verify.

'It's the easiest thing in the world to do —- having employers use the computer to make sure the name and number matches,' he said.