By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 8 percent fewer illegal immigrants last fiscal year than the year before, reversing a two-year increase in the historically volatile benchmark, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced yesterday.
Chertoff credited the drop of nearly 100,000 apprehensions largely to the Bush administration's strategy of deporting virtually all non-Mexican border crossers as fast as they are caught, deterring them and others in what had been the fastest-growing group of illegal immigrants. After quadrupling the previous four years, apprehensions of "other than Mexican" border crossers fell 57,144, or 35 percent, to 108,026 last year.
The total number of apprehensions in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was nearly 1.1 million.
"We have begun to see, for the first time, a significant turnaround in terms of the number of illegals that we are finding crossing the border," Chertoff said. "The message here is not 'Time to celebrate, we've done the job.' But rather, we ought to be encouraged, but even more determined to get the job completed."
Analysts immediately disputed Chertoff's claim of an unprecedented decline in arrests. Border Patrol apprehensions have risen and fallen like a roller coaster over the years, peaking at almost 1.7 million in 2000 before bottoming out at 932,000 in 2003. Causes include earlier threats of congressional crackdowns; the security climate after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and changes in Border Patrol funding and strategies.
Experts instead called yesterday's announcement the administration's latest effort to walk a political tightrope in its handling of illegal immigration heading into the Nov. 7 congressional elections.
They said President Bush's aides are trying to placate conservative and other critics by citing progress in enforcement at the border. At the same time, the White House is continuing to push for a broader overhaul of immigration policy, including a temporary-worker program and a chance for 12 million illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, that is stalled in Congress.
Chertoff backed away yesterday from the Bush administration's pledge to control the nation's borders by 2008, saying it would be "very, very difficult" without a guest-worker program, which the House has resisted. Proponents in Congress say it would take 18 months to six years to set up such a program, after paying for a long-needed computerized worker-verification system to manage it.
"Certainly, I don't think an 8 percent drop in apprehensions is something that we should even be paying attention to," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, which recently called for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy. "We don't see a trend line in apprehensions, and apprehensions are not the right yardstick," Papademetriou said.
The arrest total does not measure the number of illegal immigrants who evade capture, experts said, and is affected by fluctuations in law enforcement efforts to catch border crossers.
Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which backs stronger enforcement and decreased immigration, congratulated the administration for making significant gains, albeit "very late in the game . . . from a very low starting point." Citing public polling on Americans' attitude toward immigration, he said, "The administration finally understands" that enforcement "is the prerequisite, the starting point, the key to any discussion."
Chertoff denied any political motivation for the early release of the Border Patrol statistics, which are usually reported in January. He said he "owed the public kind of a year-end closeout," since he made similar reports every few months.
Chertoff cited "a very, very significant increase" and "dramatic" shift in U.S. targeting of employers whose business models are based on the use of illegal labor. The United States brought 716 criminal worksite enforcement arrests and charges in 2006, up from 24 in 1999 and 25 in 2002, Chertoff said.
"Although people will squawk about it, the answer to those squawks is to go ahead and finish the job of a comprehensive strategy," Chertoff said. "The answer to the complaints is not to simply turn our backs on violations of the law."
Under the old catch-and-release policy in the summer of 2005, 80 percent of non-Mexicans apprehended at the border were let go inside the United States, pending their hearings, because of a shortage of detention space. But for the past three months, all non-Mexicans have been held pending expedited deportation. Word has filtered back to potential border crossers, who are less likely to try to enter the United States illegally, Chertoff said, and Border Patrol agents have more time to work on other cases.
Chertoff declined to say whether or when DHS would complete 700 miles of a double-layered fence on the U.S.-Mexico border recently approved by Congress and the president. Instead, he cited plans over the next three to six years to build a "virtual fence" that includes physical barriers, electronic remote sensing and vehicle barriers, or other measures where fencing is impractical or ineffective.
"I think our ultimate view is that we want to have a virtual fence across the entire border," Chertoff said. "My disposition is to let the professionals decide what is the best lay-down of all of this."
Since the United States began building a 14-mile barrier south of San Diego in 1990, illegal immigration has shifted to more remote areas. But at 1.1 million, the annual number of apprehensions is about the same as it was in 1991.