Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
Fewer illegal immigrants are crossing the border multiple times in a single year, never-before-released government numbers show.
The percentage of people apprehended two or more times by the Border Patrol within the same fiscal year - known as the recidivism rate - has declined each of the last four years, shows a new report from the Congressional Research Service. The rate was 20 percent in fiscal 2011, down from 28 percent in fiscal 2007, the report says.
The decline is the latest indicator that the flow of illegal immigrants has slowed. That could mean illegal crossers who pay smugglers to take them across the border can't afford to try again, or that in a time of recession and tougher penalties for U.S. companies that hire illegal workers, fewer people find it worth the risk to come here seeking work.
The new report is the first public accounting of how many people cross the border repeatedly. The Border Patrol shares data on its total apprehensions each year but does not say how many people those numbers represent.
The report also reveals that nearly 60 percent of apprehended border crossers are being sent home through programs intended to make it tougher for them to cross again, and that fewer than 1 percent of all people apprehended by the Border Patrol have been convicted of major crimes.
Individual illegal immigrants are caught fewer times on average, the report shows.
Each illegal immigrant apprehended by the Border Patrol in fiscal 2011 was caught an average of 1.27 times - down from an average of 1.63 times in fiscal 2000, the report shows. That's a 22 percent decrease.
The recidivism calculations were possible because agencies within the Department of Homeland Security provided the Congressional Research Service's Specialist in Immigration Policy, Marc Rosenblum, with the number of "unique" individuals captured each year.
This number is calculated by running each person's fingerprints through a Homeland Security database that has been used at all Border Patrol stations since the end of 1999.
Rosenblum's report, "Border Security: Immigration Enforcement Between Ports of Entry," shows that about 269,000 people were apprehended in fiscal year 2011. Total apprehensions - incidents, not individuals - that year were 340,252. In fiscal 2000, about 880,000 people were apprehended compared to about 1.43 million apprehensions that were entered into the fingerprint database, the report shows.
The numbers, of course, do not account for repeat crossers who made it across the border, or who were caught in subsequent years.
The report is the latest metric indicating that the flow of illegal immigrants, especially from Mexico, has slowed:
• Border Patrol apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted to levels not seen since 1972 in the recently completed fiscal year.
• 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 number of illegal immigrants living in the United States has dropped to an estimated 11.2 million from a peak of 12 million in 2007, according to a February 2011 report from the Pew Hispanic Center.
Many immigration analysts say the U.S. recession is the most likely cause of the slowdown. Customs and Border Protection leaders agree that's part of it, but say the fact that apprehensions have been on the decline since before the recession began shows that the two-decade-long buildup of agents, barriers, roads and technology across the border is working.
Border Patrol spokesman Michael Friel said that with apprehensions at historic lows, the agency is analyzing recidivism and other border enforcement data to better understand cross-border activity and determine how to improve border security.
"We have begun looking at recidivism to see what conclusions we can make in terms of this agency's impact on an individual's determination to cross the border illegally," Friel wrote in an statement.
Few serious criminals
Since 2005, the Border Patrol has tracked how many people they apprehend are in the FBI's criminal database.
The percentage who appeared in that database with convictions for "major" crimes hovered between 1.5 and 2.5 percent from 2005-2010, but fell below 1 percent in 2011, the Congressional Research Center report shows.
Major crimes include murder, assault, kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault and dangerous drugs, the report says.
A total of 90,700 people with major-crime convictions in the U.S. were apprehended by the Border Patrol from fiscal 2005 to fiscal 2011 (excluding 2009, when a software error prevented the agency from recording the data).
The figure backs previous research suggesting illegal immigrants are no more likely to commit violent crimes than U.S. citizens.
Data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission cited in another Congressional Research Center report indicate that violent crimes made up less than 1 percent of crimes committed by noncitizens in 2009, compared to 5 percent among U.S. citizens.
Noncitizens, a category that also includes legal permanent residents, accounted for 7 percent of the 2.4 million people incarcerated in U.S. federal, state and local jails in 2009, according to a previous report by the Congressional Research Center. That's about the same percentage of noncitizens in the U.S. population.
Border Patrol leaders announced this week that the cornerstone of their new national strategy is a "consequence delivery system," that ramps up the consequences of being caught crossing the border illegally.
One such program is "Operation Streamline," which threatens anyone who crosses in a designated zone with a federal criminal conviction and jail time. That used to happen only to repeat crossers and those with criminal records.
Being in the U.S. illegally is a civil violation, not a criminal offense, so apprehended crossers typically were just dropped off at the border. But now more border crossers are being charged with criminal illegal entry before being returned to their home countries.
In fiscal 1999, 1 percent of illegal border crossers apprehended faced criminal charges or formal removals. By fiscal 2010, that number had soared to 58 percent.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com