The border fence stretches west of Nogales, Ariz. (Michael Chow/Associated…)
MEXICALI, Mexico — Arrests of illegal migrants trying to cross the southern U.S. border have plummeted to levels not seen since the early 1970s, according to tallies released by the Department of Homeland Security last week, a historic shift that could reshape the debate over immigration reform.
The Border Patrol apprehended 327,577 illegal crossers along the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2011, which ended Sept. 30, numbers not seen since Richard Nixon was president, and a precipitous drop from the peak in 2000, when 1.6 million unauthorized migrants were caught. More than 90 percent of the migrants apprehended on the southwest border are Mexican.
The number of illegal migrants arrested at the border has been dropping over the past few years but appears to be down by more than 25 percent this year.
Experts say that Border Patrol apprehensions are a useful marker for estimating the total flow of illegal migrants, though imprecise because the U.S. government has no idea how many are not caught. But coupled with census and labor data from both countries that show far fewer Mexicans coming to the United States and many returning home, it appears that the historic flood of Mexican migration north has slowed dramatically.
“We have reached the point where the balance between Mexicans moving to the United States and those returning to Mexico is essentially zero,” said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, whose conclusion was shared by many migration experts.
Such a steep drop in illegal crossings gives supporters of immigration reform ammunition to argue that now is a good time to tackle the issue.
GOP presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have been sparring over the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the United States. Gingrich says it would be heartless to kick out migrants who have worked and raised families here for years, while Romney blasted Gingrich for supporting “amnesty” for illegal residents but has not given a clear answer on what he would do.
In Congress, comprehensive immigration reform has been sidelined, stuck between those who would not allow illegal migrants to remain and others who are pushing, like President Obama, to create a “pathway” to legal status, but not necessarily citizenship.
The lower number of apprehensions supports the Obama administration’s contention that the border is more secure than ever — that the doubling of Border Patrol agents since 2004, along with hundreds of miles of new fence, cameras, lights, sensors and Predator drones, has helped slow the illegal flow northward.
But those who say the border remains out of control can point to the fact that hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants still try to make the crossing every year.
Fewer in search of shelter
At the Casa Betania migrant shelter in a rough section here in the sprawling border city of Mexicali, manager Jorge Verdugo has seen a steep decline in the number of ragged men who arrive each afternoon looking for a meal, a shower and a safe place to sleep.
Five years ago, the shelter’s 42 beds were always full. But on a recent afternoon, the place was mostly empty. At the other migrant shelter across town — for women and children — there was only one guest.
“The change has been drastic,” Verdugo said.
Data from Mexican surveys show that the amount of money sent home from the United States is falling, from a peak of $24 billion in 2007 to $21 billion last year, according to Mexico’s Central Bank.
For the first time, according to U.S. census data, the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States is being fueled more by births than by immigration. Hispanics remain by far the fastest-growing group in the nation.
Reasons for the downturn in migration are both obvious and complex.
Surging violence in Mexico has made the journey more perilous, and smugglers have increased their fees, now charging $3,000 for a quick hop from Mexicali.
Increased enforcement and tough new laws against illegal immigrants in Arizona and Alabama are daunting, and some Mexicans are seeing better conditions at home.
But immigration experts say the No. 1 cause of the steep drop is the U.S. economy, which dipped into a recession in 2008 and continues to see sluggish growth.
“The arrests on the border are moving like the U.S. economic cycle,” said Juan Luis Ordaz, senior economist for the Bancomer Foundation. Ordaz and colleagues say Mexican and U.S. data suggest that the number of Mexican migrants arriving each year in the United States has been cut in half since 2005 — and that poverty rates for Mexican migrants living in the United States have grown to 30 percent from 22 percent in 2007.