Arrests of illegal immigrants along the U.S. border with Mexico are at the lowest level since the Nixon administration, indicating that fewer people are attempting to cross the border to live or work in the United States. The development could change the debate on illegal immigration from securing the border to handling the people who are already here.
It's the sixth straight year apprehensions have dropped.
"Increasingly the problem is the 11 million people (in the country illegally), rather than the border itself," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Border Patrol arrested 327,577 people trying to cross the southern U.S. border. Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials deported a record 396,906 people over the same period. That marks the first time in decades that formal removals from the U.S. outpaced arrests at the border.
The number of arrests of people trying to sneak across the border has been steadily declining since 2006, after an all-time high of more than 1.6 million apprehensions in 2000. During those 10 years, more immigrants have become settled residents of the U.S.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly two-thirds of the country's estimated 10.2 million adult illegal immigrants have been living in the United States for at least 10 years. A decade ago, fewer than half had been in the U.S. that long.
"This is all part of a larger picture that we're not seeing very many new undocumented immigrants coming in, so the share of new undocumented immigrants is smaller," said Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. "A lot of people are staying. They've put down roots. There clearly hasn't been a large scale departure of people who have been here a while."
But politicians are still fighting over who is best equipped to secure the border.
Attempts to pass immigration reform legislation have repeatedly failed, with Republicans saying they will not support any bill that provides a path to legalization for illegal immigrants who are here and won't consider other reforms until the border is secure.
Some Republican presidential candidates, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have signed a pledge to build a fence along the length of the southern border -- there is already more than 600 miles of towering steel fencing in place. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who does not support a border fence, has proposed adding to the 1,200 National Guard troops currently stationed along the border in a support role. Perry and Gingrich have both spoken of the need for "humanity" in dealing with illegal immigrants who are already here, and were both criticized by conservative Republicans.
But the weak U.S. economy and tough new immigration laws in states such as Alabama and Arizona likely play as much of a role in the drop in illegal crossings as increased security efforts, said Doris Meissner, former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.
"There is no single thing we can point to," Meissner said. "I think it's perfectly legitimate to say that border security is working. But it is not legitimate to say they are entirely responsible. Obviously it's a combination of the economy and enforcement."
It is likely that border security will remain a divisive political issue, particularly in the 2012 presidential election, Papademetriou and others said.