Arrests of illegal immigrants along border drop 25%

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Arrests of illegal immigrants along the California-Mexico border declined 25% this year as a weak economy and bolstered enforcement efforts appear to be discouraging treks north, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said Tuesday.

The downward trend is evident across the Southwest border as apprehensions fell to levels not seen since the early 1970s. The U.S. Border Patrol arrested 556,000 people last year, 152,200 of them in California, according to statistics released for the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

Apprehension levels, considered the best available indicator of illegal crossing activity, have fluctuated for decades, but have steadily declined since 2000, when there were 1.6 million arrests.


Federal officials say the declining numbers show that increased enforcement, including fencing, staffing and infrastructure, are affecting migrant flows. Showing progress in securing the border is crucial for the Obama administration’s efforts to garner support for immigration reform legislation.

“Our layered approach to security and increased tactical infrastructure, technology and personnel at our borders has led to significant progress in securing our nation,” said Jayson Ahern, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

But the primary factor driving down illegal crossings is the economy, most experts say. With the disappearance of once-plentiful jobs in the construction and service industries, immigrants have fewer reasons to leave their towns.

“As a country, we’ve made enormous investments at the border, and so it’s important to see some results for that,” said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. “That said, this also heavily reflects the economy and the absence of jobs for people coming into the country.”

The true test of border defenses will come when or if the economy rebounds, experts say.

About 3,500 U.S. Border Patrol agents now work along California’s 140-mile border with Mexico. Staffing in the agency’s San Diego sector, which covers about 60 miles, was increased by more than 200 this year. The federal government erected about 45 miles of fencing across the California border last year, much of it in remote regions.

San Diego County’s border with Mexico is the second most popular illegal crossing route; the Tucson area in Arizona remains the busiest.


One sign that increased enforcement could be affecting migrant flows is the sharp rise in the number of smugglers trying to enter California by sea. The number of smugglers and illegal immigrants arrested trying to land at San Diego-area beaches on boats nearly doubled last year to 430.