Immigration Enforcement Working, Numbers Show

January 4, 2011

Ted Robbins

This year promises to be another contentious one for U.S. immigration politics. The new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has indicated it will take an even harder line against illegal immigration.

But while some politicians paint the Southern border as lawless and out of control, the numbers don't support that, says Doris Meissner, the former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"It really is astonishing that all of the enforcement data show us that the trend is that enforcement is making a difference," says Meissner, who is now with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Numbers from the Department of Homeland Security show a drop in apprehensions along the border -- from more than 1 million five years ago to less than half a million  in the past fiscal year. Fewer people are attempting to cross because there are fewer jobs available.

A Decade-Long Trend

But the trend began a decade ago, long before the recession began.

"This has been something that took hold when we started resourcing the borders -- adding the infrastructure that was required, the technology -- and that drop has continued," says Deputy Customs and Border Protection Commissioner David Aguilar.

Enforcement away from the border has also picked up. The government removed about 400,000 illegal immigrants from inside the U.S. last year -- a small increase.

The biggest shift was a decision made two years ago to go after what the government calls "criminal aliens," or illegal immigrants who have committed crimes in the U.S. They now make up half of all illegal immigrants removed. Interior enforcement resources, though, are still small compared with border enforcement.

And there's still one place left where relatively large numbers of people still cross the border illegally: Arizona.

But even those numbers, says Aguilar, are low compared with what he used to see. There were 219,000 apprehensions last year in Arizona, less than half the number a decade ago. And despite high-profile incidents like the killing of a border patrol agent last month and a southern Arizona rancher last March, the FBI reports that overall violent crime in Southern border states is way down from a few years ago.

Real And Perceived Impacts

But Meissner says concerns and antipathy are "at an absolute high point."

It's not about the numbers, Meissner says. It's about the real and perceived impact immigrants are having on the country.

"And, underneath it all, the kind of cultural issues of how much immigration is changing us: What it means to the identities of communities, how different groups of people are being incorporated," she says.

Arizona State Rep. John Kavanagh is targeting illegal immigrants who have children in the U.S. He wants to change the way the Constitution grants those children citizenship.   

"We believe that the current policy of giving citizenship based on your GPS presence in the U.S. at birth is a bad interpretation of the 14th Amendment," he says.

Kavanagh and legislators from 13 other states will announce a plan Wednesday they hope will result in the Supreme Court's reviewing the way birthright citizenship is applied. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.