US Mexico Border Fence and Patrol Operations

Controlling our borders was not always as great a problem as it is today. In 1965, the number of aliens apprehended by the Border Patrol coming across the border was 110,000. That number rose to more than one million annually by 1977 and has only ebbed below that level since 2007. Most of those apprehensions have been along the U.S. Mexican border. They have accounted for more than 97 percent of apprehensions until recently, and even with the recent drop they still have been more than 96 percent of total apprehensions.

Most of those apprehended on the border over the past half century have been Mexicans; about seven of eight apprehensions. This share dipped to about 82 percent in 2010 as the number of apprehended Mexicans fell more than for other nationalities. In the past, apprehended Mexican illegal entrants were taken back to legal border crossing points and sent back into Mexico. This regularly led to the alien making renewed illegal border crossings until successful in evading apprehension. This meant that the number of apprehensions did not equate with the number of persons illegally entering the country in a year, because the same person may have been apprehended multiple times in the course of the year.

The most often used points of access into the United States by illegal aliens were at El Paso, Texas and San Diego, California. Although there was fencing at those locations it stopped at the outskirts of the metropolitan area and holes were often cut in the fence. This allowed individuals — often in groups — to enter illegally and try to evade the Border Patrol.

This began to change in 1993 with an initiative in the El Paso area dubbed Operation Hold the Line which involved the Border Patrol being reconfigured along the border to deter illegal entry rather than back from the border attempting to apprehend those who had illegally entered. Fence holes that had been left open were repaired. This strategy had an immediate impact on reducing illegal entry. This success resulted in a similar strategy being applied in the San Diego sector. There were about a quarter million fewer apprehensions in 1994 than the previous year. Technology also was introduced to allow electronic fingerprinting of apprehended aliens with the idea of being able to establish whether an alien had been apprehended previously. This IDENT system was not initially successful because it was not consistently used, it was not available for search and comparison use by other sectors, and was not tied into federal fingerprint records of the FBI to reveal criminal records. Those limitations have gradually been overcome.

The effect of the new initiatives to deter illegal entry resulted in a major shift in routes of illegal entry. As illegal entry at El Paso and San Diego dropped, the number of illegal entries and apprehensions soared along the Arizona-Mexico border. This border region was for the most part wide open although a much more hostile terrain to cross.

Recent Changes

The increased national concern with illegal immigration in the 1990s that resulted in the El Paso and San Diego Border Patrol operations was heightened by passage in California of Proposition-187,a taxpayer initiative to deter illegal alien settlement in the state. Congress allotted more funding for border control and in August 1997, the INS could boast that "Since Fiscal Year (FY) 1994, the Border Patrol has grown by 63 percent, from 4,226 to more than 6,900 agents by the end of Fiscal Year 1997." The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform also provided impetus for additional efforts to deter illegal immigration with recommendations in the mid 1990s. These developments resulted in legislation enacted in 1996 that among other measures required the establishment of an electronic method to allow employers to verify the validity of Social Security numbers of new employees and the legal work status of foreign workers.

Border control took on a heightened importance as a national security issue as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The terrorists had entered with visas, but security experts reasoned that as long as the nation’s borders were easily breached, the American public is vulnerable to future attacks. This resulted in enactment in 2006 of the Secure Fence Act which mandated the expansion of border fencing by 700 miles with a focus on Arizona’s and California’s border with Mexico.

This focus on the increased need for border security also led to a major increase in Border Patrol staffing. As of FY-2012, the staffing level was 21,394, about 87 percent on the border with Mexico. The increased staffing has been accompanied by technological increases such as long-range radar, drone surveillance, motion sensors, etc.

Other efforts to disrupt illegal entry from Mexico have included returning apprehended Mexicans to border crossing points far from where they were apprehended to disrupt their access to the smugglers who would help them reenter illegally again, and return by air to the interior of Mexico for the same reason. An initiative in the Arizona sector called Operation Streamline has introduced formal deportation proceedings against the Mexican illegal entrants so that if they return illegally they will be guilty of a felony and face imprisonment.

A consequence of the increased detection and apprehension capability of the Border Patrol has been an increased reliance on smugglers to guide illegal border crossers into the country. Alien smuggling has become so lucrative it has come to rival drug smuggling across the border and to some extent the two illicit activities have merged. The recent reduction in apprehensions has coincided both with increased border control capabilities as well as the recession and high unemployment that has decreased job opportunities for illegal aliens.

As much as border control operations have increased, the border still remains entirely unprotected in some areas where the terrain tends to be a natural barrier and in other remote areas. In other areas, such as tribal reservations and national wilderness areas, border control operations are restricted. At the end of Fiscal Year 2010, the Department of Homeland Security reported it had operational control over only 13 percent of the border, or 1,107 of the 8,607 miles across U.S. northern, southwest, and coastal borders.1 For the U.S.- Mexican border, 44 percent of the 2000-miles were under operational control. (See further discussion here.)

The extent of border control and continued illegal entry of aliens and contraband and the extent to which it represents a national security treat remain a major issue in the ongoing immigration reform debate. The proponents of an amnesty for the existing illegal alien population attempt to convince lawmakers that there is now sufficient border control overcome concerns that their proposal will lead to a further influx of illegal aliens as did the general amnesty for illegal aliens in 1986.

1961 88,823       1986 1,767,400
1962 92,758       1987 1,190,488
1963 88,712       1988 1,008,145
1964 86,597       1989 954,243
1965 110,371       1990 1,169,939
1966 138,520       1991 1,197,875
1967 161,608       1992 1,258,482
1968 212,057       1993 1,327,259
1969 283,557       1994 1,094,717
1970 345,353       1995 1,394,554
1971 420,126       1996 1,649,986
1972 505,949       1997 1,536,520
1973 655,968       1998 1,679,439
1974 788,145       1999 1,714,035
1975 766,600       2000 1,814,729
1976* 1,097,739       2001 1,387,486
1977 1,042,215       2002 1,062,270
1978 1,057,977       2003 1,046,422
1979 1,076,418       2004 1,264,232
1980 910,361       2005 1,291,065
1981 975,780       2006 1,206,417
1982 970,246       2007 960,772
1983 1,251,357       2008 791,568
1984 1,246,981       2009 613,003
1985 1,348,749       2010 516,992
* FY adjustment (5 quarters)

Updated March 2013

  1. "Border Patrol: Goals and Measures Not Yet in Place to Inform Border Security Status and Resource Needs," Government Accountability Office Report 113-330T, February 26, 2013.