Arrests of illegal immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border have fallen to levels not seen since the early 1970s.
With one month left in fiscal year 2011, the Border Patrol has apprehended nearly 305,000 illegal border crossers across the Southwest border. That puts the final year total on pace to be the lowest since 1972, when 321,000 apprehensions were made.
By comparison, the agency made 852,500 to 1.6 million apprehensions each year from 1983 to 2007 along the Southwest border before the sharp downturn in the last four years.
The precipitous decline is the latest measure to suggest illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, has fallen substantially.
The number of people leaving Mexico dropped by 60 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to a July report from the Pew Hispanic Center based on analysis of Mexican government data. The estimated number of illegal immigrants living in the United States has dropped to 11.2 million since reaching a peak of 12 million in 2007, found a February report from the Pew Hispanic Center.
Many immigration analysts say the U.S. recession - the worst in a quarter century - is the most likely cause of the slowdown. With fewer jobs available, it's probable would-be crossers are being warned by family and friends already here that the trip north is not worth the money or the peril, said Rey Koslowski, associate professor of political science, public policy and informatics at the University at Albany-SUNY in New York.
Federal border officials acknowledge the economy is a factor. However, they note the decline demonstrates that the two-decade-long buildup of agents, barriers, roads and technology across the border - along with the gradual reduction of the old 'catch and release' policy - is working.
Apprehensions began decreasing in 2007 before the economic recession began in March 2008, Alan Bersin, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, points out.
The "enforcement posture is greater than we've ever had," Bersin said this week while visiting Tucson. "The results are beginning to show."
In its recent report about fewer Mexicans leaving their homeland, the Pew Hispanic Center said factors in both the U.S. and Mexico are likely the cause. The report cited declining job opportunities and increased border enforcement in the U.S., and recent conomic growth in Mexico that may have reduced the "push" factors.
In the Tucson Sector - the busiest for illegal border crossings since 1998 - apprehensions are on pace to be as low as 1994, when 139,473 were made. The sector remains the busiest of the nine on the Southwest border, but only accounts for 38 percent of all Southwest border apprehensions this fiscal year, down from 44 percent to 47 percent from 2007 to 2009.
Bersin's goal is to see apprehensions in the Tucson Sector below 100,000, which hasn't happened since 1993.
He won't go as far as to predict when that will happen, but said it's now a matter of when - not if - arrests will drop that low.
"The fat lady hasn't sung in Arizona yet," Bersin said, "but I can hear her tuning up."
Using the Border Patrol's apprehensions statistics to gauge illegal immigration rates has been likened to judging a baseball player by his hits without knowing how many times he's been at bat.
Because the figures only reflect arrests and not how many people made it into the United States successfully, Koslowski cautions not to put too much stock in the border-arrest figures.
"In terms of apprehensions reflecting in any way flows of illegal migrants, it all depends on how many are getting past per apprehension," said Koslowksi, who is also a non-resident fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
This "get-away" figure has historically been vague.
Bersin said the estimate he used as U.S. attorney in San Diego in the mid-1990s - that two people get past agents for every one caught - is outdated.
With an array of technology, aerial surveillance and more agents than ever, he said, the agency detects far more illegal entries and catches a greater percentage of them.
In most parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Yuma, San Diego and El Paso sectors, agents are catching more than 90 percent of illegal crossers, he said.
In the Tucson Sector, agents are catching at least 70 percent of them, he said.
A rise in what the agency calls the "effectiveness ratio" makes the apprehensions figures more indicative of the illegal immigrant traffic than in past decades, Bersin said.
But the other drawback of using apprehensions as a gauge is that they count the arrest rather than track the person. For example, a person caught three times in one year is tallied as three apprehensions.
The Border Patrol tracks how many times each illegal immigrant is caught, but that information is not made public.
"You have to be very careful about extrapolating in any way the flow of illegal migrants into the country," said Koslowski, noting the arrest data the agency keeps secret.
While apprehension rates are an imperfect measure of illegal immigration flow, the slowdown is likely real, said Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based organization that advocates for slowing immigration.
The decline began as far back as the summer of 2008, Camarota said, based on his analysis of the U.S. Census Population Survey data.
"Fewer folks are coming, and more are leaving," Camarota said. "This means that what was once thought to be inexorable is not."
It's important to remember, though, that a slowdown of border crossings may not mean all flow of illegal immigrants has declined proportionately, he said. In 2006, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that as many as 45 percent of the then-12 million illegal immigrants in the United States overstayed non-immigrant visas after entering through legal ports of entry.
As recently as the mid-2000s, the majority of illegal border crossers were dropped off at the nearest border city, often within hours of their arrest.
About four years ago, the Border Patrol ratcheted up its efforts to end this 'catch and return' policy by implementing and expanding a set of programs that levied consequences against more and more illegal border crossers.
Some illegal immigrants face a criminal charge of illegal entry in federal court, which could result in jail time. Other arrestees get deported hundreds of miles away from where they were caught in an effort to disrupt the smuggling route. During the summer months, many illegal immigrants are flown home to Mexico City.
With the exception of some juveniles and some humanitarian cases, every person caught crossing illegally into Arizona faces some type of consequence today, Bersin said.
"We say on the voluntary returns, 'no mas,'" Bersin said. "We are out of the voluntary return business."
With fewer arrests, federal officials have been able to prosecute a larger percentage of apprehended illegal immigrants each year since 2006, information from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University shows.
Through the first half of fiscal 2011, the Border Patrol had referred 46,125 illegal border crossers for prosecution, which represents 19 percent of total apprehensions made through that time. That was up from 16 percent in fiscal 2010 and 2 percent in fiscal 2006.
Bersin considers what he calls the 'consequence delivery system' the fourth pillar of the current border security strategy, along with agents, border barriers and roads and technology.
The threat of incarceration or being sent to border states far from where they crossed into the U.S. is absolutely a deterrent for would-be crossers, said Koslowski, the University at Albany professor.
"With the tougher border controls, the prices goes up," Koslowski said. "As the cost goes up, fewer will attempt to do it."
The Border Patrol wants all would-be crossers to know about the increased consequences. Bersin said the agency is hammering home that point through media in the five Mexican states that are home to the most illegal immigrants who come through the Tucson Sector: Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Sonora and Mexico State.
"It is a no longer a game of cat and mouse," Bersin said. "You get caught, you will be punished and a sanction will be levied against you."
The campaign also includes a warning about the risks of crossing the border.
"We're telling people that it's dangerous to come across this border," Bersin said.
"The coyotes (smugglers) are now controlled by organized crime, so even if you don't die in the desert, you will run the risk of being exploited."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com