The once red-hot issue of illegal immigration has cooled considerably in recent months, in large part because of studies like one from the Pew Hispanic Center that said the flood of people entering the U.S. from across the Mexican border has slowed, and that the number actually returning to Mexico from the U.S. has increased, reversing a decades-long trend.
But federal law enforcement agents on the border are skeptical that the illegal immigrant tide is slowing. And new information from the U.S. financial sector shows that more money is flowing from American cities to Mexico in the form of remittances from immigrants than last year.
Federal law enforcement officials interviewed by The Washington Examiner say security is being compromised as the government seeks to keep a lid on the border as a campaign issue during the presidential election cycle. Department of Homeland Security's Border Patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are being told not to make arrests of noncriminal illegal immigrants, and not to patrol areas of high traffic along the roughly 2,000-mile Southwest border.
A Border Patrol official working along the Texas border said administration officials are deliberately failing to document what is actually happening on the border. "In many cases my supervisors make it clear that they don't want increased apprehension numbers, which means no arrests," he said.
The government is also failing to patrol hundreds of miles of federal wildlife reserves that fall under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department. That has given smugglers and illegal immigrants a clear corridor to enter the county and has skewed national arrest figures, an official said. The U.S. is allowing "drug and human smugglers in without a fight" in parts of the Southwest, he said.
T.J. Bonner, former president of the National Border Patrol Council, said recent reports stating that immigration has declined are not substantiated by the facts. He said Border Patrol agents are being hampered by numerous restrictions.
"For every illegal crosser who is arrested, two get away," Bonner said.
Bonner said the Pew report, which uses statistics provided by DHS, is "surprising, considering remittances to Mexico are up despite a bad economy."
Maria, an illegal immigrant who spoke with The Examiner on condition that her last name not be used, said few, if any, of her Baltimore neighbors in a community consisting largely of illegal immigrants have fled back to their homeland.
Statistics from the Bank of Mexico, that country's largest bank, showed that remittances totaled $3.29 billion in January and February, up 7.9 percent over the same period last year. Remittances to Mexico are on a pace to total about $19.7 billion this year, according to the recent reports.
An ICE official who spoke on background said, "The guys in my office were laughing when we heard the Pew report and when we see DHS flat-out lie. We are in a constant battle with higher-ups to do our job. The problem is if we did it right, the numbers wouldn't add up" -- that is, they wouldn't support the administration's desire to keep the immigration issue off voters' minds in 2012, he said.
But administration officials argue that current studies suggesting illegal immigration has dropped are a sign that efforts to secure the border are working. President Obama said he hopes immigration reform will soon be a reality if he is re-elected. In an interview last month with Spanish-language television channel Univision during his trip to Cartagena, Colombia, Obama said immigration reform will be a top priority early in his second term but warned that in order for it to pass "what we need is a change either of Congress or we need Republicans to change their mind."
Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, said the administration is attempting to change everyone's mind by cherry-picking data to boost ICE deportations and keep border numbers low.
ICE officers are often ordered not to make arrests of noncriminal aliens and "supervisors have been ordered not to put anything in writing," said Crane, who testified to this before the Senate Judiciary Committee and whose union represents roughly 5,500 ICE officers.
A senior ICE official pointed to statistics that showed the agency is doing everything possible with its level of funding. ICE is tasked by Congress with removing 400,000 people a year. As of May 5, ICE has already removed 229,664 people, of which 118,430 were convicted criminal aliens, he said.
"Realistically we don't have the resources to remove 11 million aliens, but our priorities are to remove criminal aliens, immigration fugitives, illegal re-entrants and recent border crossers," said the official.
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.