San Antonio Express News / Washington Post
December 4, 2011
By Nick Miroff and William Booth
MEXICALI, Mexico — Arrests of illegal immigrants trying to cross the southern U.S. border have plummeted to levels not seen since the early 1970s, according to tallies released by the Homeland Security Department last week, a historic shift that could reshape the debate over immigration reform.
The Border Patrol apprehended 327,577 illegal crossers along the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2011, which ended in September.
The total is a steep drop from the peak in 2000, when 1.6 million illegal immigrants were caught. More than 90 percent of the immigrants apprehended on the Southwest border are Mexican.
The number of illegal immigrants arrested at the border has been dropping over the past few years, but it appears to be down by more than 25 percent this year.
Coupled with census and labor data from both countries that show far fewer Mexicans coming to the United States and many returning home, it appears that the historic flood of Mexican migration north has slowed to a trickle.
“We have reached the point where the balance between Mexicans moving to the United States and those returning to Mexico is essentially zero,” said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, whose conclusion was shared by many immigration experts.
Such a drop in illegal crossings gives supporters of immigration reform ammunition to argue that now is a good time to tackle the issue.
Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have been sparring over the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the U.S.
Gingrich says it would be heartless to kick out immigrants who have worked and raised families here for years. Romney blasted Gingrich for supporting “amnesty” for illegal residents, but he has not given a clear answer on what he would do.
In Congress, comprehensive immigration reform has been sidelined, stuck between those who would not allow illegal immigrants to remain and others who are pushing, like President Barack Obama, to create a “pathway” to legal status, but not necessarily citizenship.
The lower number of apprehensions supports the Obama administration's contention that the border is more secure than ever.
But those who say the border remains out of control point to the fact that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants still try to make the crossing every year.
At the Casa Betania migrant shelter in a rough section of the sprawling city of Mexicali on the border with California, manager Jorge Verdugo has seen a sharp decline in the number of ragged men who arrive each afternoon looking for a meal, a shower and a safe place to sleep.
When he began five years ago, the shelter's 42 beds were always full, but on a recent afternoon, the place was mostly empty. At the other migrant shelter across town, for women and children, there was only one guest.
“The change has been drastic,” Verdugo said.
Most experts agree that Border Patrol apprehensions along the border are an imprecise but useful marker for estimating the total flow of illegal immigrants because the U.S. government has no idea how many are not caught.
But a number of recent surveys indicated that migration has been altered in the past few years.
Pew Center research shows the number of Mexicans moving to the U.S., both legally and illegally, has fallen steeply. About 150,000 Mexicans moved to the U.S. last year, compared with 750,000 in 2000.
For the first time, according to U.S. census data, the growth of the Hispanic population in the U.S. is being fueled more by births than by immigration.
Data from Mexican surveys show that the amount of money sent home from the U.S. has fallen, from a peak of $24 billion in 2007 to $21 billion last year, according to Mexico's Central Bank.
Immigration experts say the No. 1 cause of the drop in the number of illegal immigrants is the U.S. economy, which dipped into a recession in 2008 and continues sluggish growth.
“The arrests on the border are moving like the U.S. economic cycle,” said Juan Luis Ordaz, senior economist for the Bancomer Foundation.
Ordaz and colleagues say Mexican and U.S. data suggest that the number of Mexican migrants arriving each year in the U.S. has been cut in half since 2005 and that poverty rates for Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. have grown to 30 percent from 22 percent in 2007.
“Migration has decreased because employment opportunities in the United States are not good,” said German Vega of the College of the North in Tijuana. “Fewer migrants have full-time jobs. Hours are reduced. Wages are lower. The amount of money they send home is less. And another reason is organized crime.”
Many Mexicans say it has become much more difficult to cross illegally into the U.S.
“Some of these men try three, four or five times to get across, and then they give up,” Verdugo said. “It's much harder now because of all the surveillance.”