Campaign rhetoric to the contrary, statistics show that the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border is less of a problem now than it has been for four decades.
While presidential candidates talk about how to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, data reveals that their focus should be on other problems caused by illegal immigration. Apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol are at their lowest level since the Nixon era, according to unofficial statistics from the Border Patrol that the Washington Post reported earlier this month.
A sour economy, increased enforcement by the Border Patrol and skyrocketing smuggling fees are keeping more would-be crossers at home.
In 2010, the Border Patrol apprehended about 448,000 illegal immigrants on the Southwest border, about 93,000 fewer than in 2009. This year, apprehensions dipped by more than 25 percent, to 327,500.
There are now 10.2 million illegal adults in the country and another 1 million illegal minors, according to data released this month by the Pew Hispanic Center. The center estimates that 35 percent of the adults have been in the country 15 years or longer, compared to 16 percent in 2000. Conversely, only 15 percent of illegal immigrants have been in the country five years or less, compared to 32 percent in 2000.
“It’s more expensive to get in, it’s more dangerous to get in, and there are no jobs to be had,” said Jeffrey S. Passel, the senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. “It’s not surprising that the inflows are way down.”
James W. Ziglar, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George W. Bush, said there are so many people here illegally because the system has been dysfunctional for a very long time. “We are not going to deport these people,” Ziglar said. “We need to deal with the problem and provide them with a way to a legal status.”
Ziglar’s stance reflects the view of many of his fellow Republicans. In a poll this year, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 58 percent of so-called Main Street Republicans supported a path to legalization while 39 percent opposed it. A poll by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of mayors and business leaders, found that only 16 percent of likely attendees of the Iowa Republican caucuses were opposed to expanding legal immigration.
Along some parts of the Texas border, violence is also down. Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, is on pace for 1,000 fewer homicides this year — a rare bit of good news in a ravaged city.
Howard Campbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso, said the violence has subsided because the gangs used by the Juárez cartel are weaker and the Sinaloa cartel — which has waged a war there since 2008 — is distracted with tougher battles to the west. Campbell also cited pressure on President Felipe Calderón to make the police and military more accountable and to fight organized crime to improve Mexico’s image.
“In general, things hit bottom, and so there is an almost natural cycle of improvement,” Campbell said. “Whether this improvement will last is impossible to say.”