However, while fewer people are being apprehended by the Border Patrol, the number who have died while attempting to cross in recent years has remained steady, probably because the crossings are being made in ever more remote locations.
Border Patrol tallies of apprehensions, deaths and rescues for the fiscal year that ends today won't be available until later in October, but the agency's numbers through Aug. 31 indicate a trend.
Between last October and the end of August, 519,394 people were caught trying to enter the United States illegally, the vast majority along the southern border. The downward trend began in 2005; if the numbers hold through September, it will be the lowest number of arrests since 1975, when the agency apprehended about 596,000 people.
While border-crossing deaths are below the level of 2005, when a record 492 were tallied nationwide by the agency, deaths this year are on par with the previous two years and could possible exceed them.
In fiscal year 2007, 398 people are known to have died while trying to enter illegally; in 2008, there were 390 fatalities. Just along the southwest border this fiscal year through the end of August, 378 people have been found dead, more than during the same period the two previous years.
Both the Border Patrol and immigrant advocates point to increased border enforcement, including new fence projects along the southwest border and a larger staff of agents conducting patrols.
“As (we) are gaining more operational control of areas where smugglers operated with impunity, they are going out into farther areas of the desert,” said Michael Reilly, a Border Patrol spokesman in Washington, D.C. “That could be one explanation.”
Border deaths began to increase along the southwest border following the 1994 implementation of a border security strategy known as Operation Gatekeeper, which brought additional fencing, Border Patrol personnel and technology to the San Diego area, at the time the nation's busiest corridor for illegal entries.
The Mexican government, which keeps its own tallies of border-crossing deaths, estimates the number of border-crossing fatalities since then at more than 5,000.
A joint report by Mexico's national human rights commission and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, released by the Mexican government last week, squarely blames U.S. border policies for the deaths.
“The death of unauthorized migrants has been a predictable and inhumane product of security policies on the United States-Mexico border during the last 15 years,” the report reads in Spanish.
There are different reasons why border-crossing arrests are down, said Wayne Cornelius, director emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UCSD.
The depressed U.S. job market is a key factor, and even border security appears to have an economic factor. Tighter security has led to steeper smugglers' fees, Cornelius said, often $3,000 just to cross on foot.
Those who can afford it are also paying as much as $5,000 to be smuggled through border ports of entry, he said, seen as a safer alternative to treks through increasingly remote routes in the desert and mountains.
Rafael Hernandez, director of the San Diego-based volunteer search-and-rescue group Angeles del Desierto, said he recently returned from Arizona, where it took volunteers three trips into the desert to locate the bodies of two men missing since May.
He said the bodies were found in a desolate stretch 20 miles east of the nearest highway, and about 70 miles from the border.
“The saddest thing is that they (the smugglers) are taking them to places so far from civilization, they aren't seen by anybody,” Hernandez said. “They are taking them into the worst danger possible.”