Border Patrol Releases Numbers on Illegal Crossing

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The U.S. Border Patrol releases the numbers on apprehensions and deaths of illegal border crossers for the past year.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Along the Mexican border and inside the U.S., efforts to crack down on illegal immigration seem to be having an impact. Today, the government released its fiscal year numbers for borders and customs enforcement.

NPR's Ted Robbins has been going through them and has this report.

TED ROBBINS: Department of Homeland Security figures show a border wide drop in apprehensions of illegal immigrants. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff is pleased but not comfortable.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): We've got a lot more work to do. The message here is not time to celebrate we've done the job, but rather we ought to be encouraged but even more determined to get the job completed.

ROBBINS: Apprehensions were down in Arizona and Texas, but up in California. That indicates traffic patterns are shifting depending on where agents and National Guard troops are deployed. Across the 2,000 mile border, agents apprehended eight percent fewer crossers than the previous fiscal year. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar was alongside Chertoff at the podium.

Mr. DAVID AGUILAR (Border Patrol Chief): All of these things put together have resulted in this momentum and this energy.

ROBBINS: Wayne Cornelius studies immigration patterns at the University of California at San Diego. He acknowledges the numbers show progress.

Professor WAYNE CORNELIUS (University of California at San Diego): It's a sign that the border patrol is getting more efficient at making apprehensions. It's a sign that some migrants may be delaying a trip to the border.

ROBBINS: But Cornelius is also skeptical. He points out that apprehension figures have gone up and down over the last decade depending on the state of the U.S. economy and the need for workers here. He says it's really not clear if this means fewer illegal immigrants are in the U.S.

Professor CORNELIUS: It's certainly not a time to celebrate, and I would argue that it's - we would have to have evidence that in fact more migrants are actually being kept out of the country, and there is simply no evidence of that.

ROBBINS: Two reasons Cornelius says that. First, apprehensions are the only figure the government releases, but one border crosser may be apprehended, say, six times and make it in the seventh. The government counts that as six apprehensions.

Second, almost half the estimated 12 million people in the U.S. illegally crossed the border legally on short term visas, which they then over-stayed.

One area the government is claiming unqualified success, an end to the so-called practice of catch and release. Here's how that worked. Mexicans caught in the country illegally are returned to Mexico, but non-Mexicans were released because there was nowhere to put them while they awaited deportation. The government says it ended that practice by increasing detention beds and sending people home sooner.

Mr. CHERTOFF: We started to have a deterrent effect on their willingness to come and try to cross the border. You began to see that very significant drop-off starting in the summer of '06 and then gradually decline to a level of zero releases in August of '06.

ROBBINS: Finally, we have to note the timing of today's announcement a week before the election. Wayne Cornelius again.

Professor CORNELIUS: It's clearly part of a strategy to convince voters that everything is under control at the border, and that would be an illusion.

ROBBINS: Secretary Chertoff was asked about that as he left the podium.

Mr. CHERTOFF: It's been about a month since the end of the fiscal year. I thought since I've been doing this every couple months, I owed the public kind of a year end close out kind of annual report, like people normally expected.

ROBBINS: Actually, in previous years, these figures have not been released until three months from now, in January.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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