It’s a simple idea: Make it tougher to cross the U.S.-Mexican border illegally and fewer migrants will try to sneak in.
For 12 years, the United States has backed that strategy, pumping billions of dollars into fortifying the border. Annual spending on border enforcement has nearly tripled; the Border Patrol has almost tripled its ranks; and the Southwestern border has become heavily militarized with fences, aircraft, sensors and cameras.
It hasn’t worked.
In that same time, illegal immigration from Mexico has almost doubled, millions more undocumented immigrants have settled in the United States permanently, and the human-smuggling trade has boomed.
Instead of thwarting illegal border crossings, the Southwestern border has simply become an expensive obstacle course that hundreds of thousands of migrants successfully overcome each year, more than ever relying on professional smugglers.
Drawn by plentiful jobs in this country and driven by a scarcity in their own, the migrants are being fenced in by the tighter border security that was supposed to keep them out in the first place.
Since 1993, when the federal government began its major push to secure the borders, annual spending on border enforcement has gone from $480million (adjusted for inflation) to $1.4billion, most of it for the Southwestern border.
The Border Patrol’s ranks along the 1,950-mile Southwestern border have swelled to more than 9,700 agents from 3,389 agents to become the nation’s largest uniformed police force.
Towering steel fences, sensors and cameras are in place to make crossing difficult and daunting. Agents are equipped with helicopters, Humvees, hovercrafts, ATVs and fixed-wing aircraft to patrol the vast expanse.
About 1.14million arrests were made on the Southwestern border last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, an average of one undocumented immigrant arrest every 30 seconds.
The number of undocumented migrants from Mexico entering the country increased to the current 485,000 from 260,000 a year in the early 1990s, according to a March study by the Pew Hispanic Center using 2004 data.
Legal immigration from Mexico actually decreased, from 110,000 legal immigrants a year to 90,000, the study by the nonpartisan research organization said.
Fortifying the border is supposed to keep undocumented immigrants out. But, instead, it has hemmed many in.
In the past, when border enforcement was more lax, undocumented immigrants tended to be men who shuttled between jobs in the United States and families in Mexico.
Now, once they get across, more undocumented immigrants stay out of fear they will be caught on another attempt and to make the high smuggling fees worth their while. Migrants are more likely to arrange for their families to cross to join them in the United States.
Aguayo, 30, who jumped the fence at the border in Nogales 15 years ago, found that the longer he stayed, the tougher it got to cross.
He is now married to a woman who also is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. The couple have four U.S.-born children.
“If there wasn’t so much border security, I would return. But the reality is my life is here now,” Aguayo said.