As Reform Falters, Immigration Focus Is on the Frontier
YUMA, Ariz.The assaults here can pile up quickly. U.S. Border Patrol agent Michael Norton, who patrols the area on bicycle, says he was almost drowned recently when he chased two migrant smugglers into a canal where they repeatedly forced him underwater. And last month, another agent was brutally struck in the face by a convicted murderer who had been deported several months before. Still, Norton says he's seen worse. "It's a different border than it was in 2005," he says, padlocking a van with two fresh catches inside. "Back then so many people were crossing here, it was like the Macy's Day parade every single night."
It's the strange philosophy of the Border Patrol that violence is a sign of success. As agents gain more control of an area, the theory goes, criminals will fight back harder. An odd statement, perhaps, considering the recent fate of immigration reform in Washington: After another failed vote in the U.S. Senate, President Bush went to work last week picking up the pieces, backing a funding amendment that would take the bill's focus off amnesty and put it on the more politically palatable matter of enforcement. Yet, despite claims by conservatives to the contrary, statistics show that respectable progress in border controlparticularly along key stretches in Arizona and Texasis already being made. The real problem now is how to sustain it.
Apprehension figures are a notoriously disputed statistic. But they are considered the most reliable measure of illegal traffic, and in the last year, they have been telling. From October 2006 through June 4 of this year, the Border Patrol logged 26 percent fewer arrests than in the same period a year before. In some key segments, apprehensions are down more than 50 percent.
Those numbers look far different from the data on the last major change in migration patterns, when the government changed its strategy from scooping up illegal immigrants to preventing them from coming in the first place. In 1993, the chief of the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas, lined up agents along the Rio Grande to block the immigrants dashing into his city from Mexico. A year later, the feds tackled a chaotic situation in San Diego by building a wall topped with floodlights. Although foot traffic sank in those two areas, it only shifted like a bubble elsewhere. Apprehensions in Arizona spiked, jumping 51 percent in 1994.
To be sure, there are plenty who question the government's math. "Apprehension statistics could mean any number of things," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors immigration restrictions. "Maybe the administration is making a difference, or maybe the illegal aliens are just getting better at eluding the Border Patrol." Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, which sets up water stations for migrants, says not much appears to have changed. His tanks, he says, are draining at the same rate as last year.
At the same time, some economists have their own theory for the reduced apprehension figures: A burst housing bubble and an economic slowdown mean fewer immigrants are trying to come. Dawn McLaren of Arizona State University's business school says her research shows that illegal immigrants have been harbingers of every major recession in the last decade. "Illegal immigrants are highly networked...and come here with jobs in place," she says. "When construction jobs dry up, they're getting phone calls, and they're staying home."