The number of illegal immigrants caught crossing the border illegally has declined sharply for the fifth year in a row, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
The numbers started falling in fiscal year 2006, and compared to 2000 — the busiest year for illegal crossings — the drop is dramatic.
“Our peak year of apprehensions was 1.6 million apprehensions," said David Aguilar, Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner. "This year we reduced it by over 80 percent compared to that peak.”
The final report for 2011 is not available publicly yet, but in a preview, Aguilar said arrests across the Southwest declined by 27 percent this fiscal year, which ended September 30.
Even the busiest smuggling corridor, which cuts through Arizona, experienced a drop, Aguilar said.
“The peak year for Arizona was over 660,000 apprehensions — that was in 2000," Aguilar said. "This year we closed out the year with 123,000.”
He credits the drop in illegal crossings to the increase in agents on the Southwest border since the peak year.
“Nationwide, we had about 8,000 agents then," Aguilar said. "Now we have over 21,000 between the ports of entry. We have additional technology, additional infrastructure... all of the things together creates a much safer border.”
There are still smuggling hot spots in Arizona and Texas. “We are still finishing off Arizona and working very hard on South Texas — deep South Texas — because of the narcotics violence going on in Mexico,” Aguilar said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is also a Republican presidential candidate, has criticized the Obama administration for failing to do enough to secure the border from escalating drug violence.
Aguilar disputed that assertion. “I want to reiterate, the narcotics violence is going on in Mexico. It is not spilling over into the U.S.”
The violence in Mexico is concentrated along key smuggling routes where warring drug cartels are fighting for turf. Immigrants have been kidnapped and killed as they make their way to the border.
“It’s too much danger,” said Jesus Fuentes as he waited at a border crossing in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, not far from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Fuentes buys used cars in U.S. and resells them in Mexico. He has documents to cross back and forth legally, but said others who don’t have papers are reluctant to make the risky trip.
In April, the number of people taking buses from Central Mexico to the Tamaulipas border fell sharply after authorities found mass graves near the town of San Fernando, about 80 miles south of the Texas border.
And these days, the ongoing U.S. recession means there are fewer jobs to lure immigrants to “El Norte,” where they face more danger and more border enforcement.
“The people right now stay safe in the home, and don’t move because it’s too much danger," Fuentes said.