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Why Fewer Arrests Means Better Border Enforcement

According to new DHS data, arrests for illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border fell to just over 325,000 in FY2011. This represents a fall from a peak of 1.6 million arrests in 2000 and is, as The Washington Post notes, the lowest number since the early 1970s. To some, a low number of arrests might suggest that more illegal immigrants are successfully entering the United States, but these numbers actually suggest that the border is increasingly secure. What’s the reason for this counterintuitive interpretation?

Put simply, fewer arrests indicate fewer attempts and better enforcement. A 2011 report by the Center for American Progress notes that in general, arrest numbers fall because fewer people are attempting to cross the border in the first place. And, as both the CAP report and the Post article note, security and surveillance on the southern border have increased dramatically over the last decade. Now, the Post claims that “the U.S. government has no idea” how many people are not caught crossing the border. But that’s incorrect. It is true, as the CAP report notes, that years ago “the number of attempted unlawful entries was simply a ‘guesstimate’ based on the number of apprehensions.” But now, “new infrastructure and enhanced technology allows the Border Patrol to know with far more precision how many people attempt to cross the border.” And the percentage of apprehensions has increased considerably—in some high-volume areas, the report notes, “Border Patrol used to estimate that for every apprehension, two or three attempted entries succeeded.” Today, senior Border Patrol officials say that in some major sectors, “they believe they are apprehending 80-plus percent of the traffic.” Keep those numbers in mind the next time you hear someone claim that the government has failed to secure the border.