Illegal immigration decline leads to drop in crime Federal and local law enforcement say they have seen sharp drops in crime directly related to illegal immigration.

    PHOENIX — Steep declines in the number of migrants illegally crossing the border with Mexico in recent years have rippled across Arizona and other border states, with federal and local law enforcement saying they have seen sharp drops in crime directly related to illegal immigration.

    The New York Times - Published: March 11, 2012

    In Arizona, a state that remains divided by fierce arguments over illegal immigration, federal agents have reported finding far fewer drop houses, where smugglers stash their human cargo of border crossers, and making fewer arrests of those migrants. Police chiefs from Arizona cities say their crime rates are low and are falling, as are the numbers and costs of illegal immigrants coming through their jails.

    Federal immigration officials met with state and local police departments Tuesday and Wednesday in the convention hall in downtown Phoenix to assess the state of security along the Southwest border.

    They broadly agreed that the decrease in illegal crossers — down to about 340,000 migrants apprehended in 2011 from a peak of 1.1 million in 2005 — has brought a lighter workload for the police but also a change in the type of crime they confront.

    While they no longer see huge flows of illegal migrants heading for work in the United States, federal and local law enforcement officials said, they now face far smaller numbers of more determined and potentially more dangerous crossers, including migrants carrying illegal drugs.

    Sharply contrasting views, even tension, were on display between federal officials, who pointed to reams of data showing positive results of greatly reinforcing the border in the last five years, and some local officers, particularly sheriffs who patrol the open spaces of desert counties along the line.

    “We’ve got a lot of rural county, a lot of ranch families, and a lot of those people are living in fear every day,” said Rodney W. Rothrock, chief deputy sheriff of Cochise County, along Arizona’s southeastern border with Mexico. “They carry firearms because they simply don’t know what they are going to encounter.”

    Matthew C. Allen, the special agent in charge of investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the state, said 51 migrant smugglers’ drop houses were raided in Phoenix last year, down from a peak of 186 in 2008. About 800 illegal migrants were arrested in those raids in 2011, compared with about 3,200 in 2008, Allen said.

    The police chief of Mesa, a suburban city just east of Phoenix, said the crime rate there was the lowest since the 1960s. The chief, Frank Milstead, said that only about 2 percent of 17,900 people arrested in Mesa last year were suspected of being here illegally. “The operational impact on our jails,” he said, “is minimal.”

    Raymond Cobos, the sheriff of Luna County, three thousand square miles of border scrub lands and sierras next door in New Mexico, said his deputies now arrest an average of eight illegal immigrants a day, down from a daily average of about 300 three years ago.

    Rothrock also acknowledged a new reality. In 2010, he said, more than 300 illegal crossers detained by the Border Patrol were turned over to the Cochise County sheriff because they were wanted for crimes in the United States. Last year, he said, the number of illegal crossers with open warrants was seven.

    But he warned that Cochise deputies were beginning to encounter “a different type of illegal alien”: migrants alone or in small groups toting backpacks loaded with marijuana or methamphetamine. Those migrants often plan to hand off the narcotics to a courier and return quickly to Mexico, he said.

    “A lot of times they take the opportunity to help themselves to the citizens’ property,” Rothrock said, by breaking into homes to search for food and cash before trekking back across the border.

    Jeffrey Scott Kirkham, the police chief in Nogales, the busiest legal port of entry in Arizona, said his crime rate was very low, with two homicides in the last seven years.

    But in an arrest that shocked the police chief, a teenage student was discovered on Feb. 29 in the Nogales high school with nearly four pounds of heroin, worth an estimated $80,000, in his backpack.

    Federal investigators also reported “an alarming increase” in attacks by migrants on border agents, according to James Turgal, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Arizona. In 2011, the agency opened investigations of nearly 500 assaults on federal officers along the Arizona border, from rock-throwing to shootings. That was more than four times the 117 assaults in 2008, he said.

    Federal officials said they were confident that progress would continue, since handling fewer illegal migrants means they can focus more agents and surveillance equipment on stopping drug traffickers.

    But even optimists urged caution. “The primary magnet that draws people across our border from Mexico is employment,” said Allen of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “I think we all recognize that the real test for us is going to come when the economy turns around in a very significant way.”