Even as President Obama travels to Las Vegas Tuesday to call for legalizing illegal immigrants, the latest numbers from the U.S. Border Patrol suggest that the flow across the nation’s southwest border jumped by 9 percent last year.
The Border Patrol made 356,873 arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2012, up from 327,577 in 2011, according to figures obtained by the Associated Press and confirmed by The Washington Times. Border Patrol officials estimate that apprehensions are a good proxy for illegal crossings, so when the numbers go up, it means that the flow of illegal immigrants is going up as well.
Last year’s increase marks a reversal. Apprehensions peaked in 2005 at 1.2 million and had been steadily dropping every year since as first President George W. Bush and then Mr. Obama committed more manpower and resources to the border.
In his first term Mr. Obama said he had fortified the border so much that it could now be deemed secure, and Congress could turn its attention to passing an overhaul of the broader immigration system.
On the way to Las Vegas, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the apprehension numbers are a good sign.
“We’ve seen in Fiscal Year 2012 apprehensions totaled nearly 365,000 nationwide; that’s a 50 percent decrease from 2008,” he said.
The Homeland Security Department didn’t respond Tuesday morning to a request for comment on the new numbers, but Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the data represents a problem for Mr. Obama as he pushes for legalization.
“The Obama administration has asked the public and policy makers to accept its theory that declining numbers have meant that we are actually getting control of the border and that it is ‘more secure than ever before.’ If they’re going to stick with that logic, this would meant that things are going in the other direction,” she said.
She said the new numbers should push lawmakers to put the brakes on immigration and wait to see what’s behind the increase: whether it’s Latin American economies pushing more people to flee, or the U.S. economy improving enough to draw in new immigrant workers, or failures in American border security efforts.
Mr. Obama is expected to use his Las Vegas speech to embrace much of the bipartisan framework announced Monday by eight senators that would grant immediate legal status to all illegal immigrants, but withhold green cards until the border is secured. Green cards, signifying legal permanent residency, are the key interim step before getting citizenship.
Politico reported Tuesday that Mr. Obama will agree with most of the framework, but will balk at waiting for border security to be guaranteed before issuing green cards.
Border security has been among the thorniest issues of the immigration debate.
In 2007, the Senate’s last effort to pass a legalization bill failed after voters flooded the Capitol switchboard with calls insisting that Congress first work to secure the borders.
President Bush and Congress boosted manpower and technology on the border, and the number of apprehensions — and, presumably, illegal crossings — dropped dramatically.
In fiscal year 2005 the Border Patrol made 1,1717,396 arrests along the southwest border; it made 1,071,972 arrests in 2006; 858,638 arrests in 2007; 705,005 arrests in 2008; 540,865 in 2009; 447,731 in 2010; and 327,577 in 2011.
A Government Accountability Office report earlier this month detailed some of the Border Patrol’s internal calculations about how many illegal crossers it misses, and the report said about 40 percent of would-be illegal immigrants get away. That rate has held consistent over time.
But Glenn Spencer, head of American Border Patrol, a private citizens group that tracks border crossings, said according to their own estimates, the Border Patrol only catches about 30 percent of illegal crossers.
If true, that would mean more than 800,000 illegal immigrants crossed without being apprehended last year.