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Arrests of immigrants at the border are at its lowest level in 40 years. We look at the reasons behind the numbers.

December 7, 2011 1:18 p.m.


Ruxandra Guidi, KPBS Fronteras Desk

David Keyes, field coordinator for the Mexican Migration Field Research Program, UCSD Center for Comparative Immigration Studies

Related Story: Border Arrests At Lowest Level In 40 Years


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: It's Wednesday, December 7th. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Our top story on Midday Edition, new government numbers show this fiscal year more undocumented immigrants were deported from the U.S. than were arrested trying to enter. Meanwhile, arrests of immigrants at the board are are at the lowest level in 40 years. Joining us to talk about what the numbers mean to San Diego and to the nation's immigration debate are my guests. Ruxandra Guidi is a reporter with the KPBS fronteras desk. Welcome to the show.

GUIDI: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And David Keyes is field coordinator for the Mexican migration field research program at UC San Diego's center for comparative studies. Thank you for coming in.

KEYES: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: The government says border arrests are down. Do we know that that actually means fewer people are trying to cross the border?

KEYES: The arrest numbers that were reported recently say nothing about the number of people coming across. In fact, those numbers are just talking about the number of apprehensions that have taken place at the border. Through our studies, we've seen, and there are other national studies that have corroborated this, that the number of people attempting to cross are down significantly from the mid-2000s, when of course the economy was doing much better than it is today.

CAVANAUGH: And I believe that some of those numbers show that this is the 6th year of decline in the number of people arrested, and one would assume the number of people trying to cross the border illegally

KEYES: Yeah, that's right. The number has been going down consistently. Latinos who make up the majority of crossers, they were actually affected by the economic downturn before its effects were seen throughout the larger economy because they were concentrated in industries such as construction which went down. Those numbers of the past few years are actually even before the real economic downturn. But they've continued to go down we believe largely to the continued economic hard times that have existed here.

CAVANAUGH: You bring up the reasons for this decline. And some people are pointing to the economy. I've read that some people are pointing to enhanced border security. And some to hash anti-immigration laws like those in Arizona. So which is it?

KEYES: Our research has shown that the economic effect is probably the biggest of the three that you mentioned. We work throughout three different towns in Mexico that represent a decent Sam of the types of immigrants coming to the U.S. and we interview people there as well as people in the U.S. who are from those towns. And we find that people are very much aware of the economic situation in the U.S. and those who are aware that the economic situation is bad have indicated to us that they're far less likely to want to come. In terms of the border security, there have been some impacts of that, but we have seen that over 90%, in most years it's been over 95% of people who have attempted to cross from Mexico into the U.S. have actually made it across. So our research hasn't shown that the actual hardening of the border has had an impact.

CAVANAUGH: And yet, the government is pointing to that as the primary reason, I think, in what I've read that the number of arrests are down, the number of illegal border crossers are also down. ; isn't that right?

GUIDI: That's right. If you asked department of homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, she would say it's this increasingly beefed up border security that is to credit for the apprehensions at the border going down. Also, the federal government has been heavily invested in border security since the attack of September 11th. And just in six years, the number of border patrol agents at the border have doubled. It went from nine then and there in 2001, to 21,000 today. In terms of technology infrastructure at the border, you're going to hear that the decrease of arrests at the border is due to security. But there are a number of factors on top of what David said. It wouldn't just be the actual border enforcement, state of the economy, and jobs in the U.S.. But also the increasingly dangerous trek that a lot of migrants have to take to the U.S. and the smuggling business was basically -- at least in our part of the border, Tijuana, San Diego, was in control of numerous smaller smuggling mom and mop type operations.


GUIDI: Whereas now a lot of the drug cartels have their hands in this business, and it's increasingly dangerous and expensive. It used to cross, say, 2,500 to be taken cross the border, I don't know six years ago, now, it's, up to $10,000. And that's money that the family member who's receiving this migrant here in the U.S. would have to pay when they receive this person. So we're talking about a combination of factors that are coming to a immediate right now.

CAVANAUGH: And especially, David, when you -- when someone considering making a crossing like this looks at what kind of a job climate they're going to be coming into here in the United States , when we talk about the bad economy stopping immigration, what specific kinds of jobs have evaporated for migrants?

KEYES: Construction was definitely a huge part of it. And many Latino immigrants were working in construction. The people that we interview work in a wide variety of jobs. We work with a group who lives in Los Angeles and works primarily in car washes. Those types of jobs have gone away. It's really call the basic service level jobs and construction as well at the lower level that are -- that have been really exacted, as have of course many other jobs. But those are the jobs that immigrants cluster in.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the drop-off of immigration at the U.S. Mexico border has been in some cases so severe that some farmers, I know in other states like Arizona, have complained there are not enough migrant workers to actually harvest their crops. So not only are jobs kind of shrinking in some areas, but other jobs are going wanting because of this decline in illegal immigration. It used to be that people who crossed the border illegally would go back and forth.

GUIDI: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: Maybe every year. There's been a change in that too, hasn't there?

GUIDI: Right. In the U.S., unlike in Canada, we do have a guest worker program in the U.S., which is very pricey for producers and it's not enforced. In Canada, a lot of migrants that are coming to do seasonal planting, harvesting work, and can afford to come and go and have some of their expenses paid for by the government. Here in the U.S., a lot of seasonal workers would come and any on their line, go home for the holiday, come back. And if they feel they're crossing, three time, David said they would generally be successful. I was surprised to hear 95% make it across. But now, I think it's really because it's increasingly dangerous and expensive to do this. And you're risking too much. A lot of the -- the pew Hispanic center came out with a report saying the majority of folks who are here undocumented have been in the U.S. for ten years or longer without papers. So we're talking about a population that is increasingly putting down roots in the U.S. and has their American-born children or extended family here and that are staying here throughout the bad economic times. So it's no longer whether it's because of the economy or strictly border enforcement or because of the dangers they face crossing the border. Folks are choosing to stay here longer. Even if they don't have the papers. And even if the political climate in the U.S., some states like Alabama, Georgia, and Arizona is increasingly anti-immigrant.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with reluctanceand raGuidi who's a reporter with the KPBS fronteras desk, and David Keyes who is with the Mexican immigration field research program. We're talking about new statistics released we the government that arrests at the border are way down this last fiscal year, and also the idea that the number of people who are trying to cross from Mexico into the United States is also way down. So David, here we have as Ruxandra said, a report that says most of the people who are in the United States illegal have been here for at least ten years, does this change the debate here from fences and more guards to the people who are actually in this country?

KEYES: I can think of two things going on. NO. 1, of course with the Republican primaries and the very political season that we're in, discussion of border security is in many ways more a political issue than it is based on the reality of what's going on on the ground. So I don't think in that sense it'll go away because it makes political sense particularly for Republicans to talk about it. But I think also what's happening is that the realities that there are so many immigrants in the U.S., with papers and without, that it's becoming a salient issue not only in places here like San Diego where it's been an issue for a long time but throughout the country in places where there have only been recently immigrants arriving and settling from Latin America. I think it will continue to be an on issue throughout the country, and probably become more of an issue as immigrants spread throughout the entire country.

CAVANAUGH: And yet our political debate about this is still largely about increased security, boarder security. There's an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. Is there any credible movement among lawmakers to allow them to live here legally? To change their status in some way? Or is it still the focus on border security? And then we'll talk about something else?

GUIDI: I think the reason why there's so much focus on the border is because it's a physical entity. We can wrap our heads around it. I think a lot of the Republicans in Congress believe we could move as a country into a discussion about immigration reform once we make sure that the boarder is secure. What that means, I'm not sure. VIP went out and did this story earlier this week and talked to numerous folks about what would this secure border look like if not right now? Basically that's just never going to happen, if you ask me. Mexico is an important -- one of the most important trade partners. And we need that flow of goods. And frankly, we have a very security border as it is. We could say that the number of apprehensions at the border have gone down. And yet the number of drugs coming into the U.S. is steadily growing. So I think the border is a -- is basically a symbol in a debate over something that this country hasn't been able to fully grasp. And changes have gone going on, sociological, economic, political changes have been going on in this country that haven't caught up with the reality of immigration and the enormous boom in the Latino population that has occurred over the last ten years

CAVANAUGH: That is exactly the point I was going to bring to you, David, to hear what you have to say about that. Is public perception lagging behind reality in this debate about people who live here without papers?

KEYES: Lagging behind reality.

CAVANAUGH: Reality in the sense that the number of people coming into this country is much less than it used to be, and also people are staying here longer and assimilating into communities

KEYES: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the fact that there are so many immigrants here is something that I think people are not always aware of in terms of the impact that it has to them because -- if you think about the products that you buy in the store, the services that are done for you, so many of them are done by immigrants. And I think people are not -- many people end up focusing on what they perceive to be the negative aspects of immigration without recognizing that immigrants are doing a lot of the work that our country really relies on.

CAVANAUGH: I want to mention that you were at a forum last night on the proper role of local law enforcement in immigration. The idea seems to be that the federal enforcement seems sometimes to be of immigration laws seems to be in limbo. We've seen states and hole governments step in and either enact legislati 098 or pair up with federal

GUIDI: They brought together folks on current views. And they all agreed that the federal government hasn't been following its own laws. It hasn't been doing much to fix immigration in this country. So what we have is a really patched up system made up of federal -- the federal laws, states, and even local communities like Escondido here that are trying to define what that means and what that means for them. A lot of these laws or measures are now making it into the Court, and we shall see in the next couple years what's going to happen or longer. But what's happening now is we have various directives coming from Washington. On the one hand, we hear the Obama administration saying they want to reach some immigration form, yet the number of deportations have been steadily rising. It's the highest number ever. And yet we're seeing that the number of folks apprehended at the border is going down. Secretary Napolitano says the border is more secure than ever, yet we hear some legislatures saying no, it's not. And on the local and state level, we're seeing a lot of these types of disagreements too. I'm afraid to say I don't think immigration reform is anywhere near. But I do think that it's going to be in a very important election issue. And I think increasingly the Latino vote as everyone has been arguing is going to, an important decider. So I'm guessing immigration is going to play an important part in their vote as well.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us today. Thanks a lot.

GUIDI: Thank you

KEYES: Thank you.