Is More Border Funding Needed If Apprehensions Are Down?

Early talks about immigration reform call for securing the border.

Feb. 11, 2013— -- The number of undocumented immigrants caught trying to cross illegally into Arizona has dropped to the lowest level in 19 years, the Arizona Republic reports. Meanwhile, the number of agents patrolling the state is at a record high.

According to the Republic, "the 124,631 undocumented migrants apprehended represent a 43 percent drop from two years earlier and an 82 percent drop from the peak in 2000. For the fiscal year ending last September, more than one-third of all undocumented immigrants arrested by the Border Patrol were apprehended in Arizona, the agency reported."

In recent years, that trend has been reflected nationally. Border apprehensions remain at the lowest level in 40 years, even with a slight uptick in the last fiscal year. And U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employed 21,394 Border Patrol agents in the 2012 fiscal year, keeping staffing along the U.S. borders at an all-time high.

According to the article, Border Patrol says the added security makes it more difficult to cross. But is the drop in apprehensions a result of more staffing? The answer isn't clear.

A report last year by the Pew Hispanic Center found that migration from Mexico had reached net zero in 2010, and may have continued to decline. As to why migration from Mexico had dried up, Pew cited a few reasons:

The standstill appears to be the result of many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, the long-term decline in Mexico's birth rates and broader economic conditions in Mexico.

So while increased enforcement is likely part of the reason apprehensions have dropped, other factors seem to be slowing the stream of migrants to the U.S., namely the poor economy and shrinking birth rates in Mexico.

Determining the role that border security plays in stemming migration could be crucial as the immigration reform debate moves forward. A path to citizenship will likely be contingent on whether the border is deemed secure enough to stop future illegal immigration, and both parties will have to decide how many agents, drones, helicopters and, ultimately, dollars it will take to do that.

Through 2010, Border Patrol measured border security by determining what percentage of the border was under "operational control." Those metrics were based on things like intelligence reports and input from senior Border Patrol officials, according to a 2011 government report. For the past two years, however, the agency hasn't been using that system, and a new system that was expected to arrive in 2012 still hasn't been put into place.

The new system, called the Border Condition Index (BCI), is still moving forward, according to a spokesperson for U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP). "An initial version of the BCI has been completed and final consolidations and modifications are currently being made, based on comments from external reviewers," Branch Chief Jenny Burke said in a statement.

But regardless of the amount of border security, that alone won't be enough to stop illegal immigration, according to Lisa Magaña, an associate professor at Arizona State University's School of Transborder Studies, who spoke with ABC/Univision in January. She noted the 45 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. enter the country legally on visas, saying, "more border patrol and a bigger wall isn't really going to make that much of a difference."