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More Apprehensions at Border, but Spotlight Shifts Away From Mexico

The number of immigrants apprehended while attempting to cross the United States' southern border rose last year, but most of the increase can be attributed to immigrants coming from countries other than Mexico.

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U.S. Border Patrol agents last fiscal year apprehended about 57,500 more people attempting to cross into the United States illegally via the southern border than in 2012, according to data released this week by the agency.

The spike, however, is attributed mainly to an influx of immigrants coming from countries other than Mexico. Agency officials said in a statement that those immigrants were “predominantly individuals from Central America.” 

The federal government’s fiscal year runs from October to September. From October 2012 to September 2013, 117,667 Mexicans attempting to cross into the U.S. were apprehended in the Big Bend, Del Rio, El Paso (which includes the state of New Mexico), Laredo and Rio Grande Valley sectors of the U.S. Border Patrol — an increase of 13,360, or about 13 percent, from 2012.

But the number of apprehensions of immigrants from countries other than Mexico — which has fluctuated over the past decade — increased by 52,200, or 71 percent, in 2013. The Rio Grande Valley sector saw the largest increase, from about 50,000 in 2012 to 96,800 in 2013. The nation’s Southwest sectors, which also include California and Arizona, saw about 149,000 "other than Mexico" apprehensions in 2013, compared with about 153,000 nationally. During the 2012 fiscal year, about 94,500 such apprehensions were recorded on the Southern border and about 99,000 nationally. 

Analysts say the trend is likely to continue as Central American countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador grapple with violence and poor economic conditions. But the biggest factor contributing to the trend, they say, is the relatively young, workforce-ready population in those countries.

“For the last 20 years, birth rates have fallen in Mexico, so that there are a lot fewer people entering the labor market, and that’s less true in El Salvador and much less true in Guatemala and Honduras,” said Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. 

“In terms of what the economy is doing, Mexico has done a better job of generating jobs for people in the labor market than the Central American countries have,” he said. 

Mexico is in the middle of major reforms that include changes to its tax structure and education policies. The country is also overhauling the state-owned oil monopoly PEMEX and is finalizing how it will allow for private investment in the petroleum giant.

Analysts say the changes could bolster the steadily growing economy and keep more would-be immigrants — authorized or not — home. According to the World Bank, the gross domestic product of Mexico — which boasts the second-largest economy in Latin America — grew 3.8 percent in 2012, but its inflation rate went up 4.1 percent. Honduras' GDP grew 3.9 percent in 2012, while its inflation rate grew 5.2 percent. The GDPs of El Salvador and Guatemala grew 1.9 percent and 3 percent, respectively, with inflation increases of 1.7 percent and 3.8 percent.

The increases in apprehensions will likely be used as a talking point as the U.S. Congress prepares to debate how to overhaul the country’s immigration system. There are roughly 11.5 undocumented immigrants in the country, and the latest estimates from the Pew Research Center say that about 1.7 million live in Texas. Proponents of immigration reform may say the increase in apprehensions means that the Border Patrol is doing a better job of securing the border, while opponents may argue that more apprehensions indicates that more people are getting through.

Rosenblum said the figures don't prove either argument.

“Historically, we’ve looked at the number of apprehensions as a good proxy for the number of illegal migrants making it through,” he said. “That’s never a perfect indicator, because with that rise, we don’t know if that’s more attempts or a better success rate by the [Department of Homeland Security].”  

The U.S. government attributes the increase in apprehensions to additional resources at the southern border, including more drone flights.

“CBP continues to deploy proven, effective surveillance technology tailored to operational requirements along the highest trafficked areas of the Southwest Border,” CBP officials said in a statement. “CBP’s air assets, including the Unmanned Aircraft Systems and P-3 programs, flew more than 61,000 hours in enforcement missions combined in FY 2013.”

Others might blame the increase on Mexico for failing to secure its border with Central America. But the highly publicized kidnappings and murder of Central American migrants in Mexico has caused officials there to ramp up their law enforcement efforts.

“Mexico has put a lot of resources in place at the southern border,” Rosenblum said. “It’s still not on a scale of what the U.S. does, and I think there’s probably historically been more of a problem with corruption and some problems with Mexican enforcement. [But] I think there’s been some pressure and some real progress in addressing that.” 

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