The number of illegal immigrants being arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border has declined sharply in the first two months of this fiscal year, with some Border Patrol sectors seeing a drop of as much as 63%.
Arrests all along the border have dropped about 27%, or by nearly 43,000 illegal immigrants, since Oct. 1, compared with the same time last year, Border Patrol officials in Washington said.
Reports of the decrease come about a month after Border Patrol officials announced a nearly 9% drop in arrests from 2004 to 2005.
If the trend continues, it would mark the first sustained decrease in illegal immigrant arrests since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Xavier Rios.
It's nearly impossible to know whether the drop in arrests means that fewer people are coming across the border.
T.J. Bonner, president of the union that represents the majority of agents, said agents on the ground estimate that they only catch 25% to 33% of illegal immigrants.
"This is not a game of laser tag where you simply point at someone and say, 'Tag, you're it, go home,' " said Bonner, who is also a Border Patrol agent. "It's very time-consuming to round them up and arrest them. In the meantime, who's watching the store? No one."
Border Patrol officials acknowledge that they don't know how many people make it across the border every year.
But they insist that the drop in arrests, which varied widely -- the San Diego sector had a 3% drop, while the Yuma, Ariz., and Del Rio, Texas, sectors each showed a 63% dip -- is a sign that recently launched border security efforts are working.
"All of these numbers are good," Rios said. "We're better staffed than we have been since the inception of the Border Patrol. We're more effective at what we do."
Despite the significant drop in the Yuma Sector, which covers far southwestern Arizona and parts of Southern California, agents in Arizona remained the Border Patrol's busiest.
Border Patrol officials said they first noticed a drop in arrests last summer, shortly after National Guard troops were ordered to the border as part of President Bush's Operation Jump Start.
Those troops staff cameras, help maintain Border Patrol equipment and watch for illegal crossers.