Decline in border arrests signals fewer undocumented immigrants, safer border region

Border Patrol arrests have reached 40-year lows, demonstrating an unprecedented level of safety in our border region. This decline in border arrests is largely the result of a marked decrease in the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants entering the U.S. According to the Mexican Migration Project, a bi-national demographic effort, the rate of undocumented emigration from Mexico is nearing zero. In 2010, only 9 out of 1,000 Mexican men emigrated without documentation, a rate last seen in the 1960s. These historic lows in border arrests and undocumented immigration can be attributed to three key factors: tougher U.S. border security, Mexican economic growth, and an increase in legal immigration.

Fewer border arrests are a strong indicator of heightened border security. Border apprehensions tend to rise following a security buildup, and decline once the region is under control. In 2004, President Bush signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, authorizing the hire of an additional 10,000 agents. Following the authorization, border arrests rose in 2005, before stabilizing and entering a 5 year decline that continues today. This decline illustrates the Border Patrol’s firm handle on the region, which has dissuaded many would-be immigrants from attempting to cross the border.

Through a combination of increased manpower and technological advances, the U.S. government has secured the U.S.-Mexico border to an unprecedented extent. As arrests continue to decline along our southwest border, the number of Border Patrol agents there has nearly doubled, making unlawful entry still more difficult. This increase in manpower coupled with aerial surveillance and technological advances has led to the capture of over 90 percent of undocumented immigrants in the El Paso, Yuma and San Diego sectors.

Future plans to heighten aerial surveillance are underway, as the U.S. military is joining with border-patrol officials in a new initiative that could bring surveillance blimps previously used on the battlefields of Afghanistan to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. officials hope that the 72-foot-long blimp, known as “the floating eye” among troops in Afghanistan, will help to establish a high-tech border surveillance network. Border officials are also exploring more than 100 other types of military gear, including hand-held instant-translation devices and highly sensitive sensors. Border Patrol Agent Jason Rheinfrank emphasized the holistic nature of border security measures, saying “It all works together, it slows them down.”

The rapidly growing Mexican economy has bolstered job opportunities at home for some potential migrants, negating the economic necessity of immigration. Aside from family reunification, jobs are the main reward that justifies the risks of undocumented immigration.  Many Mexicans, given the chance to make a decent living in their native country, would prefer not to leave. Booming trade with the U.S. combined with rising labor costs in China has created jobs in the auto industry and other manufacturing sectors. Meanwhile, analysts expect the shrinking U.S. real estate market to return labor to Mexico, improving the nation’s human capital and keeping wages stable as supply improves.

Fewer job opportunities north of the border have also reduced many migrants’ central economic motive for immigration. The U.S. recession has hit the construction and manufacturing industries, which employ a disproportionate percentage of Latinos, particularly hard. The difficult American job market combined with increased opportunities at home has helped to reduce the number of Mexicans annually leaving Mexico for the U.S. by 60% in 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

A dramatic increase in legal immigration is another key cause of the decline in undocumented immigration and border arrests. In their recent piece on immigration reform, Jorge Castaneda and Douglas Massey described the boom in legal migration, saying that “Mexicans are coming to the United States to work as eagerly as ever, but they are doing so legally.” 517,000 Mexicans entered the United States as legal temporary workers in 2010, while 888,000 entered on business visas and 30,000 arrived as exchange visitors. Moreover, legal permanent immigration to the U.S. from Mexico has reached new heights, a trend that the Castaneda and Massey attribute to “defensive naturalization.” Confronted with punitive anti-immigrant policies, many undocumented residents have opted to naturalize when possible.

In 2007, Mitt Romney described his conception of the uncontrolled U.S.-Mexico border, saying that “there’s no way to stop them [undocumented immigrants] at the border, unless you close down the magnets. And the magnets are sanctuary cities and having employers sign people up that have come here illegally to do work here.” The decline in border apprehensions and undocumented immigration has occurred while “sanctuary cities” continue to thrive and punitive anti-immigrant measures such as SB 1070 have been defeated on a federal level, illustrating a flaw in the logic of Mr. Romney and his party. Successful immigration policy necessitates continuing down the road of success by maintaining our strong border, encouraging legal immigration, and building our economic relationship with Mexico.

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