Border Patrol Successes Questioned
November 22, 2012

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Undocumented Mexican immigrants walk through the Sonoran Desert after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border border on January 19, 2011 into the Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- For years, the Homeland Security Department has said its beefed up enforcement at the Mexican border has led to fewer illegal crossings. But now a new study commissioned by the agency is questioning that.

Researches with the National Academy of Science tried to determine not how many people cross the border and are caught but the number of people who actually try to cross the border.

Some illegal immigrants give up. Others try multiple times. Still others make it. It’s useful to think about it like a website. You can measure the number of hits every day but if the same people keep coming back, you don’t really have a sense of your traffic. What you really want is the raw number of just how many unique individuals came that day.

Alicia Carriquiry is a statistician at Iowa State University. She says Homeland Security needs that data.

"They don’t know. They really don’t," Carriquiry said. "But I think DHS has a real interest in knowing exactly what the numbers are and how effective they are being."

Without a magic answer, the panel laid out the questions DHS needs answers to. For example, how many people in Central America don’t cross because of Border Patrol ads warning them not to? Or, how many delay plans because there’s no work in the U.S.?

The number of illegal border crossings has dropped to historic lows. And that’s something Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel said can be attributed to the increase in border security staff and equipment.

"And the border is more secure than it’s ever been before," he said, noting that right now, apprehension numbers are at 22 percent of what they were at their highest in 2000.

Homeland Security asked for the study but then wouldn’t let the panel publish some of the data publicly, saying that could jeopardize its work on the border. The Academy rejected that and so was left without key datapoints to help determine a clear answer.