Jesus Saavedra Parra, a scraggly 23-year-old from Culiacan, Sinaloa, has had little success eluding the Border Patrol.
Slouched outside a holding cell at the agency’s Tucson sector substation, Saavedra struggled to recall how many times he has been caught.
“More than six times,” he said. “But I don’t know how many.”
A run of Saavedra’s fingerprints through a computer database revealed the Border Patrol had apprehended him three times in 2002, twice in 2003 and three times in 2004, including Oct. 20.
Saavedra’s story illustrates how one of the most commonly cited Border Patrol statistics—apprehensions—can distort perceptions of how many illegal immigrants try to enter the country.
The agency tracks and widely reports the number of arrests along the border. But that number includes many immigrants caught more than once.
During fiscal 2004, which ended Sept. 30, the Border Patrol reported nearly half a million apprehensions in its Tucson sector, which stretching from the Yuma County line to New Mexico. The number of individuals was about 325,000, according to Border Patrol statistics obtained by the Tucson Citizen.
And since the Border Patrol resets its apprehension count each year, it is unclear how many of those individuals had been arrested in previous years.
“It is really important and useful to understand that apprehensions are not the true barometer of the story,” said Doris Meissner, head of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000.
“In terms of what’s happening to the country where illegal immigration is concerned, I think the number of individuals is the more important number,” she said.
Nationwide, Border Patrol agents arrested more than 740,000 individuals in fiscal 2004 among nearly 1.2 million apprehensions.
Douglas S. Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton University who runs the Mexican Migration Project database, said the gap might make some difference in public perception.
“Once you cross the million threshold, that kind of has a ring to it,” Massey said. “But among those people who are really bothered by immigration, I doubt it will make that much difference.”
Under federal law, crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor that can land first-time offenders in jail for up to six months. But because federal prosecutors are overwhelmed by the number of illegal immigrants, the Border Patrol releases more than 90 percent of people they catch.
The process is called voluntary repatriation. By signing a form, most illegal immigrants caught along the border can opt to immediately return to their home countries—usually at the nearest port of entry in Mexico—rather than plead their cases before a judge.
After returning to Mexico, many illegal immigrants cross the border again and again until they succeed, give up or in some instances, die.
Authorities say they would like to prosecute every offender, but that it would overwhelm the legal system.
Paul Charlton, U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, said his office has just 30 prosecutors to review the more than 588,000 apprehensions along the Arizona border in fiscal 2004.
And there are plenty of court cases to go around without prosecuting relatively minor offenders.
In fiscal 2004, Tucson sector agents caught 14,506 illegal immigrants with criminal records—27 percent of criminal illegal immigrants arrested by agents nationwide, according to Andy Adame, a Border Patrol spokesman for the Tucson sector. All of those became court cases.
Of the criminals arrested, 7,681 were charged with immigration offenses, meaning they had been deported then caught entering the U.S. illegally again. In fiscal 2003, Tucson sector agents arrested 4,025 for immigration offenses.
Part of the increase in arrests in 2004 is the result of a fingerprint ID system that became available to more federal agents in southern Arizona in May 2004, Adame said.
Also, an increase in the number of agents in Arizona means more illegal immigrants—and consequently more criminals—are being caught.
Even if every federal prosecutor in the country came to Arizona, “There wouldn’t be enough marshals to move those prisoners, there wouldn’t be enough beds to house them, there wouldn’t be enough judges to try them,” Charlton said.
Instead, prosecutors set a threshold number of apprehensions illegal immigrants must reach before facing charges. The agency won’t release the number, but Charlton said it is high enough to target smugglers, not the immigrants they guide.
The system’s result is that the Border Patrol devotes vast resources to catching illegal immigrants who might have been in their custody before.
“Over time, agents realize that that’s a part of our job,” Adame said. Still, he said the cycle frustrates some agents.
Meissner, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said apprehensions remain an effective tool in measuring agents’ overall workload and in justifying funds from Congress.
Furthermore, apprehension figures show which parts of the border face the most traffic.
The Tucson sector has led the nation in apprehensions each of the past seven years.
The sector’s 490,000 apprehensions during fiscal 2004 accounted for 43 percent of arrests along the Mexico border, the highest share in the sector’s history.
Including apprehensions from the Yuma sector, Arizona accounted for more than half of all arrests made along the nation’s southern border, also a record for the state.
By comparison, in 1993 the Border Patrol made fewer than 1 in 10 apprehensions in Arizona.
In large part, the shift has been attributed to a Border Patrol strategy that sealed off popular urban crossing points around San Diego, Nogales and El Paso. Illegal immigrants have since flooded across remote parts of the Arizona border.
Saavedra, who is married and has daughters aged 2 and 4, has crossed from the Mexican towns of Sasabe, Nogales and Naco. He said he continues to cross the border illegally for one reason: to make money.
The Border Patrol began using automated fingerprint technology to track illegal immigrants in 1994. But not until 2002 did every station in the Tucson sector get machines that tapped into the agency database, Adame said.
The statistics obtained from the Border Patrol came from the agency’s Enforcement Integrated Database and cover each fiscal year since 2002.
By comparing the totals of individuals to apprehensions, the figures show that the percentage of illegal immigrants who are caught more than once has risen in the past three years.
In the Tucson sector during fiscal 2002, roughly 1 in 4 apprehensions was an immigrant arrested earlier in the year. By 2004, the number had grown to 1 in 3.
“No one factor can explain it,” said Charles Griffin, also a Tucson sector spokesman, though he said agents in the field are performing more efficiently.
Despite the recent rise in recidivism, repeat crossers were more common five years ago, Adame said.
In fiscal 2000, the Tucson sector reported more than 600,000 apprehensions, the highest total in its history.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the saying where agents are capturing the same guy three times in one shift,” Adame said. “That is no longer true. It’s very rare to see the same guy twice a shift.”
BORDER PATROL APPREHENSION TOTALS VS. INDIVIDUALS:
(recidivism rates in parentheses):
Tucson sector (26.6%)
Tucson sector (29.4%)
Tucson sector (33.6%)