By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009
The number of arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped 27 percent this year, a decline that could put the figure at its lowest level since the early 1970s, federal officials said yesterday.
The decline accelerates a three-year-old trend that experts attribute to the economic downturn, with stronger U.S. immigration enforcement measures also playing a role.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar released the data to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, refugees and border security, noting that the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled from 9,000 in 2001 to a projected 20,000 by September. The government also has completed 626 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers. It plans 661 miles of barriers on the 2,000-mile frontier.
"By several measures, the border is far more secure than it has ever been and, with our help, will soon be even more secure," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the panel, which held the first of four hearings scheduled to take place before the August recess. Aides said the hearings are meant to build a case for overhauling immigration laws.
President Obama has invited advocates to hammer out a legislative approach and has set a June 8 meeting at the White House for a small, bipartisan group of Senate and House leaders, a spokesman said yesterday, "with the hope of beginning the debate in earnest later this year."
The committee's senior Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), noted that the Border Patrol made 723,000 arrests last fiscal year.
That is "still a lot," he said. "That is not a lawful border. . . . We're not there yet."
Arrest figures only partially measure illegal immigration because authorities do not know how many immigrants evade capture and because one person can be arrested many times.
But the trend is corroborated by declining rates of remittances sent by immigrants to their native countries and by Mexican census data. More than 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, and experts do not see evidence that many are leaving.
The Border Patrol reported 354,959 arrests from October 2008 to May, down from 486,735 over that period a year ago. About 97 percent of the arrests were on the southern border.
The figure for fiscal 2008 is less than half the 1.7 million in 2000 -- the peak -- and is the lowest since 1976, the Department of Homeland Security said.
Spending on U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the patrol's parent agency, has climbed 82 percent since 2004, from about $6 billion to about $11 billion.
Douglas S. Massey, a professor at Princeton University, said the crackdown has increased the average cost of border crossings from $600 in the early 1990s to $2,200. But he noted that the cost of each arrest has also risen. The number of fatalities also has climbed as migrants seek more remote areas to avoid capture.