Crossing the border loses some of its allure
CALEXICO, California – The American Dream’s promise of prosperity for hard work has long drawn illegal immigrants, but that pull appears to have faded during the long, deep U.S. recession.
The number of people apprehended while attempting to illegally cross the U.S. border from Mexico fell to 800,000 in 2008, down more than half from an all-time high of 1.8 million in 2000.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, attributes the decline to increased manpower, surveillance cameras, sensors and fences along the 2,000 mile border the country shares with Mexico.
“It’s a question of deterrence,” said Adrian Corona, a supervisory patrol agent standing beneath a camera-topped tower just over a mile from the Mexican border. “We’ve caught people who pay up to $3,000 to smugglers to get them across the border. When they see and hear about the operations we have in place here, they think twice about attempting it.”
But James Smith, senior economist at the Rand Corporation, said that the downturn in the United States had undoubtedly played a role.
“It’s clear that one of the characteristics of the labor market for undocumented workers is that it is extremely flexible,” he said. “It comes when it’s needed and stays away when it’s not.”
“If there is less for illegal immigrants, then it is easier for them to stay in a lower cost environment like Mexico,” he added.
The total number of Mexican-born people in the United States has not changed much through the boom and bust, according to a July report from the Pew Hispanic Institute, holding steady at about 11.5 million.
Hans Johnson, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said increased security may have persuaded many illegal immigrants to stay in America rather than risk going home.
“But when it comes to the fall in people trying to enter the country, it would not surprise me if the largest factor was the economy,” he said. “It’s almost entirely responsible for the slowdown in illegal immigration.”
Even in November It is scorching hot in the desert outside Calexico, but summer temperatures can be lethal, making the crossing dangerous for both illegal immigrants and the border agents who pursue them. There are 1,100 agents in this sector that covers around 70 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border. Apprehensions this year are down about 18 percent.
“It’s tough work, but the extra technology we have in place has made my job a lot easier,” Corona said.
Billy Whitford, U.S. Customs and Border Protection port director at the border crossing in Calexico, said that illegal immigrants still try to make it past his agents “on a daily basis” using false documents and that many of them were headed far from the border.
“A lot of the people who come through here illegally are heading for big markets like Los Angeles to find work,” he said.
Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kelly Ivahnenko also attributed the falling numbers to improved security measures and increased agent numbers.
“Our job is to prevent people crossing the border illegally, not to speculate on whether the economy is playing any role,” she said.