WASHINGTON – The U.S.-Mexico border is safer than it ever has been, but Arizona will remain the most-active region for border crossing even as apprehensions continue to drop, according to a report released Thursday.
The report by the Center for American Progress, backed by border patrol officials, said that border apprehensions have fallen by 73 percent in the last decade. Officials predicted the trend will continue, in Arizona and nationwide.
But a “water-balloon effect” — with enforcement efforts squeezing desperate border crossers east from San Diego and west from El Paso — will keep the pressure on the otherwise risky crossing near Yuma and especially Tucson. As many as 40 percent of all apprehensions in the nation are expected to come in the Arizona corridor, said Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“It is not the place that you, or I, or indeed any criminal organization that set out to find a place to smuggle people into the United States, would choose,” Bersin said. “Arizona, some of the most spectacularly picturesque terrain in the United States is also some of the most dangerous and difficult.”
What’s different now from years past, Bersin said, is the sharp increase in border patrol agents and resources. Those additional eyes on the border mean it’s harder for “smugglers coming in, setting up shop, and not being challenged from day one.”
That assertion was greeted skeptically by some officials in Washington.
“Anyone who thinks our border is safer now more than ever has obviously never been to the border or spoken with those who live and work along it,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa.
Doris Meissner, a senior fellow and the Migration Policy Institute and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program, conceded that “there is not the level of control that we want to have” along the Arizona border. But it is better than her early days as the commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service under Attorney General Janet Reno in the mid-1990s.
Meissner remembers Reno telling her after a visit to the border, “Doris, you must do something about the border.” Back then, she said, security at the border was traditionally a small number of border patrol agents trying to apprehend people once they were already in the United States.
“That was a recipe for chaos,” Meissner said. “And it was a recipe for all kinds of corollary problems.”
The report looked at the 18-year history of federal border security efforts and how immigration trends have funneled traffic toward Arizona.
“The pot is being stirred in some places along the border — most importantly in Arizona,” Meissner said.
She said one of the biggest changes in strategy has been a shift to “deterrence through prevention.”
The report said apprehension numbers have been declining “dramatically” in all sectors, but the Tucson sector remains a particular challenge.
“This pincer effect has turned the Tucson sector into ground zero in the border enforcement battle, which, in a bit of law-enforcement hyperbole, senior border patrol officials have characterized as the ‘smugglers’ last stand,’” wrote Marshall Fitz, author of the report.
Bersin estimates Tucson apprehensions will fall from 212,000 in 2010 to 120,000 in 2011, or 40 percent of the estimated national total of 300,000 apprehensions for the year. His goal is to see numbers in each border sector fall below 100,000 next year.
But fewer apprehensions does not mean more people are getting away, Bersin said.
“When you see the decline in apprehensions you begin to see the deterrent effect,” said Bersin. He said the combination of personnel and technology to survey the border are two ingredients to a successful enforcement effort.
The report noted that enforcement is not the only reason for border-security successes. It pointed to improvements in Mexico’s economy and schools along with shifting demographics that have diminished the “push” factors that drove people to the United States in the past.