MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we wanted to talk about an issue that, like Iraq, touches every hot button in political life today, from health care costs to education to homeland security. It's immigration, specifically illegal immigration from Mexico, from which the vast majority of illegal immigrants have come in recent years.
Republican presidential candidates have been sparring about how best to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing the border. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have promised to support a nearly 2,000-mile fence along the U.S./Mexico border if elected. And Michele Bachmann has called for a double wall to be built.
But new data from the Department of Homeland Security suggests that far fewer people are trying to cross the U.S./Mexico border illegally than in recent years. The U.S. Border Patrol arrested 328,000 illegal crossers in the 2011 fiscal year. That's down 25 percent compared with 2010, and it is a dramatic fall from the peak number in the year 2000, when 1.6 million illegal migrants were caught.
We wanted to talk more about what might be behind this trend, so we're joined now by Steven Passement. He is a supervisory U.S. Border Patrol agent with the Tucson sector. His division patrols 260 miles across the Arizona/Mexico border.
Also with us once again is Jeffrey Passel. He is a senior demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center, where he researches border migration trends.
Welcome to you both. Thanks so much for joining us.
JEFFREY PASSEL: I'm very glad to be with you.
STEVEN PASSEMENT: Hey, thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: So, Agent Passement, let me just start with you. We've talked about how the numbers of border arrests have dropped off. Is that something you feel like you see every day?
PASSEMENT: Yes, Michel. Just based upon, you know, the fiscal year numbers from last year, we've seen a dramatic decrease in apprehension. It's showing that our enforcement efforts are working. The word's getting out that, you know, the border is no longer the same anymore.
MARTIN: And I know that we hear folks behind you. I know we've caught up with you at work, so I just want to say thank you for taking time out of your day to speak with us.
The numbers I have say that the Tucson Border Patrol, your division, arrested 616,000 people in the year 2000. That was down to 116,000 in 2011. I just wanted to ask: What does that mean in terms of your day? Does that mean that you'll go days without encountering somebody? Weeks? What does that feel like?
PASSEMENT: Before, at those numbers you were quoting, the 616, some days you got to work, it was go, go, go. Now, we're seeing less entries. We're making less apprehensions only because of, again, the word's getting out. We have several programs in place that we owe credit to for this, and just the cooperation amongst different agencies to secure this border.
MARTIN: So, Jeffrey Passel, let's turn to you now. To what do you attribute this trend? I mean, I know that there's been some reporting on this in recent days as these dramatic numbers have come out. What do you think is behind this?
PASSEL: It seems to be a combination of factors. The enforcement effort has certainly made a big impact. It's made it much more expensive for people to be smuggled in. It's made it harder and more dangerous.
Coupled with that, we have the U.S. side, where it's very hard for a potential migrant to get a job. So if you're faced with a $3,000 smuggler fee and maybe going through the desert, but won't be able to get a job here, you're much less likely to come.
MARTIN: You think that people who are already in the U.S. are sending word back to people at home: Don't bother. It's just not worth it. It's just too hard right now.
PASSEL: Well, there's no shortage of information in Mexico. There's a lot of communication back and forth. The people in Mexico see it on TV. They talk to relatives here, and, in many cases, Mexicans seem to be sending money to their relatives in the United States, which is a reverse - not enough to measure in broad terms, but we certainly are hearing stories like that.
MARTIN: Are there any trends in Mexico that might be contributing to this trend?
PASSEL: There is the beginnings of them. The Mexican economy is not as bad as perhaps the U.S. is. There's an unfortunate amount of violence along the border in Mexico, which is keeping people from trying. And we're starting to see the beginnings of the changing demography of Mexico, with fewer people entering - smaller birth cohorts entering the workforce every year. And that's just started now as a consequence of a 40-year decline in fertility.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News, and we're talking about the recent decline in arrests for crossing the U.S./Mexico border without proper authorization. Our guests are Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, who researches these trends. Also with us, Agent Steven Passement of the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector.
You know, Agent Passement, according to your office, the number of assaults on agents has actually increased since the year 2000. Given the drop in the number of people crossing, why might that be?
PASSEMENT: Well, being that - you know, again, our enforcement efforts have gone up. It's getting harder and harder for the criminal organizations to bring people and narcotics across the border. And what that leads to is the frustration levels getting higher and higher amongst these criminal organizations, and, unfortunately, it's a sign that we're doing our job. It's frustrating them.
MARTIN: And Agent Passement, the Arizona Daily Star reported 182 migrant deaths in your sector in the past year. That number is down a bit since last year, but in general, it does seem as though it's still very dangerous for the agents - also dangerous for those migrants trying to cross. Why is that, in your view?
PASSEMENT: For us, one death is too many. But that falls upon the smugglers misinforming the individuals that they're trying to bring across. What we've found is, a lot of times, the individuals are lied to. They don't come prepared. They lack water, and so forth.
Unfortunately, these smuggling organizations - you know, they just move them like cattle. All they're worried about is the money, and they're leading them to risky situations and jeopardizing their lives.
MARTIN: Jeffrey Passel, do you have any thoughts about that?
PASSEL: Well, that's certainly the case. More people are using smugglers now than 15, 20 years ago, a higher share of the migrants. So - and the smuggling, as the agent says, has become associated with the criminal organizations.
There were deaths 15, 20 years ago, not as many, but they tended to be from traffic accidents rather than exposure in the desert.
MARTIN: Along those lines, Jeffrey Passel, going back into history, we've talked about how this is an historic moment to have it almost equal, the number of people entering the U.S. and the number of people actually leaving the U.S.
Has it ever turned around? Have we ever gotten to this level before, and then has illegal migration gone up again?
PASSEL: Well, the kind of large-scale illegal migration that we've seen over the last couple of decades really didn't start until the 1970s. And since then, we haven't seen anything like this.
There was a good deal of movement back and forth across the border, and some undocumented migration back in the '20s. The Depression ended that, and it restarted a bit in the '50s. But this is really quite a different situation than we've seen in our lifetimes.
You know, we don't really know what the future will bring. The Border Patrol has really stepped up its efforts and, at the point where the U.S. economy turns around, I think we'll really find out how this is working.
MARTIN: And, finally, Agent Passement, I'm just going to give you the final word here. Is there anything you would like people to know about your job that perhaps they do not know? I mean, this is, you know, a rare opportunity to talk to somebody who's actually on the frontlines of this issue.
PASSEMENT: Well, you know, we're using all the opportunities and technology and resources that we're given. We're going to continue to protect this nation. You know, we're parts of the community, so it's not us against them. It's us working together with the communities and striving to protect this nation. And we'll continue to share intelligence and do operations with other agencies. And, you know, we're out there for - not just for them, but for us, also. We want to keep everybody safe.
MARTIN: Steven Passement is a supervisory U.S. Border Patrol agent with the Tucson sector. His division patrols the 260 miles across the Arizona/Mexico border. Jeffrey Passel is a senior demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center, where he researches border migration trends, and he's been kind enough to join us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Jeffrey Passel, Agent Passement, thank you so much for joining us.
PASSEL: You're very welcome.
PASSEMENT: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.