Arizona border

Border fence in Arizona.

Border Patrol in the Tuscon Sector of Arizona have arrested 40% fewer illegal immigrants than last year.  That is a significant drop that indicates illegal immigration has slowed considerably in Arizona.


Official statistics won’t be released for several weeks, but Alan Bersin, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told Border Patrol agents in Nogales this week that arrests in the Tucson Sector fell to 123,000 last fiscal year. Arrests in the Nogales station, the largest in the Tucson Sector, fell by 43%to 18,000.

“Ladies and gentlemen, know that you are engaged in a historic enterprise here,” Bersin told the agents. The drop in arrests, he said, shows that illegal immigrants “are not coming through here anymore, and when they do, they are getting apprehended.”

Bersin, who toured the border near Nogales on horseback Sunday with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and members of the agency’s horse patrol, reiterated the numbers in an interview with The Arizona Republic.

“This is the year we close the lid on this sector,” Bersin told The Republic.

Last year’s 123,000 arrests is the lowest level in the Tucson Sector since 1993, a remarkable turnaround for a region that, Bersin said, “was out of control” just a few years ago.

“It was out of control because we were reacting to the smugglers,” Bersin told the agents. “This year, they are reacting to us.”

The Obama administration has deployed National Guard troops and has been adding new fencing, technology and agents along the border to make it more difficult to cross illegally. They also have been beefing up immigration enforcement. In fiscal 2011, deportations were at an all-time high.

Those factors, coupled with the grim U.S. job market, have driven the number of arrests down.

Erik Lee, associate director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies, a think tank based at Arizona State University, said Mexico’s booming economy, which grew by 5% last year, also creates less incentive for illegal immigrants to head to the U.S. to find jobs.

Arizona, particularly the Tucson Sector, has been the most popular gateway for clandestine border crossings for years and a flashpoint in the national debate over illegal immigration, with politicians routinely demanding that the administration secure the border.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a high-profile critic of Obama administration border policies, acknowledged that the government buildup has had some positive results, but he said there remains more to be done to secure the border. Overall, the measures still have not “kept up with the escalation of violence on the other side of the border,” which poses a threat to the United States, McCain said. Fencing and technology is still insufficient and a larger National Guard presence is needed at the border, he said.

“I not only acknowledge but am pleased to note some improvements. I just don’t think there have been enough,” said McCain, who sits on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

President Obama has repeatedly pointed to continuing declines in Border Patrol arrests as evidence that he has increased border security.

“In the general election, no doubt President Obama is going to make the case that his policies are working,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The natural comeback is to say, ‘Your bad economy is producing a lower arrest rate because there aren’t that many coming over.’ ”

In several recent presidential debates, however, Republican candidates have accused Obama of not doing enough to secure the border while pledging to beef up border enforcement. One candidate, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, signed a pledge in October promising to secure the border. Another candidate, former pizza company CEO Herman Cain, called for an electric fence to deter illegal border crossers, but then said he was joking after the remark triggered heavy criticism and protests.

Sabato said the drop in arrests is not likely to tone down the debate. Some may even try to spin the statistics to mean that the Border Patrol is catching fewer immigrants because more are slipping through.

“They are going to say whatever level it is, it is much too high and if we build that fence, whether it’s electrified or not, we’ll be able to stop this flood of illegals, which can wax and wane depending on the strength of our economy,” he said.

Slowing the flow

In the late 1990s, border crackdowns in San Diego and El Paso funneled illegal-immigration traffic through Arizona.

At the peak in 2000, the Border Patrol apprehended 1.6 million illegal immigrants along the Southwest border, including more than 616,000 in the Tucson Sector.

Arrests have been falling dramatically, however, in recent years, especially in Arizona. The 123,000 illegal immigrants arrested in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector last year represents a 42% decrease from the 212,202 illegal immigrants arrested the year before, and an 80% decline from 616,000 arrests in 2000.

As recently as 2009, Border Patrol arrests in the Tucson Sector made up 45% of all arrests along the entire Southwest border with Mexico. Last year, arrests in the Tucson Sector fell to 38% of the total, Bersin said.

Preliminary data shows that Border Patrol arrests along the entire Southwest border — in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — are also down. They fell 28% last year to 316,458 during the 11-month period from Oct. 1, 2010, through Aug. 31, 2011. Total arrests on the Southwest border are on track to be at their lowest levels since 1972, when the Border Patrol logged 321,326 arrests.

Still, the Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona’s border with Mexico, remains the most popular corridor for illegal border crossers. Last year, the number of Border Patrol arrests in the Tucson Sector was more than double the number of arrests in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector. The Rio Grande Valley Sector, which covers Texas’s eastern border with Mexico, had the second-highest number of arrests, preliminary data shows.

Increased costs

Bersin and Napolitano say the sharp drop in Border Patrol arrests in Tucson and along the Southwest border in general indicates a decrease in illegal-immigrant traffic. They credited the addition of thousands of Border Patrol agents, more fencing, additional technology and increased air support.

“We’ve got more manpower down here than ever before,” Napolitano said in a meeting with agents in the Nogales Sector. “We’ve got more technology for you to use than ever before. We’ve got more infrastructure here than ever before, and it’s making a huge, huge difference and that difference can be measured in every statistical way.”

But McCain pointed to the major Arizona drug-trafficking bust announced Monday, which resulted in 76 arrests of suspected border scouts, drug runners and others allegedly connected to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

“Well, the good news is we busted them, but the bad news is they were there,” he said.

McCain also cited a letter sent Wednesday to Obama by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott that requests additional manpower to help guard against what Abbott characterized as the “escalating threat” of spill-over violence related to Mexico’s bloody drug war. Abbott’s letter was prompted by a gunbattle in Hidalgo County, Texas, in which a deputy sheriff was wounded by suspected drug-cartel operatives.

In 2000, there were 8,580 Border Patrol agents assigned to the Southwest border. At the end of August of this year, there were 18,152, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security. Of those, about 4,000 are stationed in Arizona, with about 3,200 in the Tucson Sector and the remaining 800 assigned to the Yuma Sector, which covers western Arizona and parts of eastern California.

Since 2000, spending on the Border Patrol has increased from $1 billion a year to $3.5 billion in 2011, according to Border Patrol statistics.

The Border Patrol is also in the process of hiring and training 1,000 additional agents authorized by Congress in 2010. The bulk of them will be assigned to Arizona, Bersin said.

Napolitano acknowledged that the economy has also played a role in decreasing migrant traffic.

“But,” she said, “the plain fact of the matter is we began seeing these numbers change before the recession in direct response to the gradual addition of Border Patrol agents and the gradual and greater use of technology.”

Via USA Today