Published April 05, 2013
Newly released arrest numbers show a significant increase in illegal immigrants crossing along the southwest border, despite claims as recently as Thursday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that the border is more secure.
"I can tell you having worked that border for 20 years, it is more secure now than it has ever been. Illegal apprehensions are at 40-year lows," Napolitano told reporters this week in Houston.
But figures released Thursday by Customs and Border Protection to Fox News tell a different story.
Arrests are actually up 13 percent compared with the same time last year. The number was 170,223 in 2012, and is 192,298 this year.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, reacting to those numbers, questioned Napolitano's insistence that the border is becoming more secure.
"There is no statistic, metric or evidence that the border is more secure than ever. I went out there for a couple days and found multiple spots where you can see trails of people coming in. They were still apprehending massive amounts of drugs out there, this is a very porous border," Chaffetz said.
The numbers back up anecdotal claims that Texas is seeing a marked surge in traffic. The increase comes as Congress prepares to debate immigration legislation, which in its draft form is expected to include a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already here. Some have expressed concern this provision could entice illegal immigrants to cross over.
The stats show that in Texas, arrests in the last six months are up 53 percent in the Rio Grande Valley; up 22 percent in Laredo; and up 24 percent in El Paso.
While arrest figures can be interpreted in different ways, the administration generally has seen lower numbers as a sign of better security.
For the last five years, the administration claimed the border was more secure because arrest numbers declined as the economy tanked. Would-be illegal immigrants from Mexico either stayed home or went home.
Now, however, arrests are actually up by 25,000. That means more traffic, and more immigrants actually getting through.
According to the Government Accountability Office, up to 40 percent of those who make it over the southwest border never get caught.
But a new radar drone, called "VADER," showed during a three-month test in Arizona that agents are catching fewer than 50 percent of those who successfully cross the border and then disappear into the mountains, valleys and deserts. Administration sources say, however, the system is still in a testing phase, the 50 percent figure is inaccurate and VADER alone offers an incomplete picture.
Customs and Border Protection says they are using all the resources they can to crack down on the problem areas.
"Under this administration, DHS has dedicated historic levels of personnel, technology, and resources to the Southwest border. CBP has more than doubled the size of the U.S. Border Patrol since 2004. In FY (Fiscal Year) 2012, CBP employed over 21,300 Border Patrol agents, keeping staffing levels along the border at an all-time high. Additionally, CBP continues to deploy proven, effective surveillance technology tailored to the operational requirements along the highest trafficked areas of the Southwest Border," said Bill Brooks, the Southwest Border Branch Chief with CBP Public Affairs, in a statement to Fox News.
The fight over what defines "border security" is heating up and may help explain why the Department of Homeland Security initially refused to provide the latest numbers to Fox News. Repeated requests for the data went unanswered for weeks by the agency that runs the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection -- though that data was routinely provided to reporters over the last 30 years.
"This is the most politicized, least accountable, and least transparent Border Patrol that I have seen in more than 25 years of writing about border issues," said Jerry Kammer, former Washington Bureau chief of the Copley News Service and recipient of the George Polk Award for investigative reporting and 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. "When it comes to border security, the Obama administration has gone from 'yes we can' to 'let's not talk about it.' This latest move to block the public's right to know extends a pattern of dishonesty that has been developing for two years."
Kammer began writing about immigration as a Mexico correspondent for the Arizona Republic.
Critics say Napolitano is trying to move the goal posts, by changing the long-time definition of border security away from one that centers on the number of arrests.
Napolitano now says that is too narrow a definition -- that the border is more secure because there are more agents and infrastructure, and crime rates are down.
"By all the different measures one looks at on the border, they're all trending in the right direction and strongly so," Napolitano said Thursday. "When you actually look at the numbers it's a record of manpower and technology and by the way, total air coverage that we've never had before. So in terms of the resources that have been deployed here, its' more than ever."
Many in Congress aren't buying it.
"Texans -- and all Americans -- would appreciate a healthy dose of reality from Secretary Napolitano. She should admit the border is far from secure and commit to implementing a clear metric to measure security, something her department has not done since 2010 and continues to resist," said Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn.
"For years, Secretary Napolitano has been trying to lead us to believe the border is more secure than ever. There is no evidence that that is true. Statistics go up, they go down, and she seems to have it both ways," said Chaffetz, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the "Gang of Eight" -- which is drafting immigration legislation -- admits defining what border security means is complicated.
"We've tended to hear from the Department of Homeland Security that basically it's 'mission accomplished' at the border and that's just not the case," Flake told Fox News. "I think all of us concede that we have a better situation on the border than we've had in past. And in certain sectors, we really still have a troublesome situation. A lot more people getting through than we thought."