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At US border, era of fence-building, manpower 'surge' at an end

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Researchers attribute the big decrease in border crossings partly to beefed-up enforcement and partly to a sour US economy and changed migration patterns in Mexico, home to nearly 60 percent of the people living in the US without authorization.

The new strategy is appropriate, given the low numbers of people now coming across the border, says Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Everyone, I think, has started to recognize that we have the assets that we need, and they need to be more strategically and optimally deployed. That’s one reason you’re not seeing new calls for [more] fencing by most of Congress.”

The border patrol has grown to 21,000 agents, and the US-Mexican border is now fortified with cameras and other high-tech surveillance. In 1996, Congress approved funding for thousands of agents and set aside dollars to extend the border wall. The new strategy does not emphasize new fencing.

Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, for one, thinks little of the border patrol's new priorities. 

“Our federal government, they don’t see the magnitude of this problem,” says the Republican, who in July launched a fundraising website to build a state border fence. “It’s folly … to stop putting up things that we know work, that we know are an impediment,” he adds, saying fencing is part of the solution, along with manpower and technology.

For years, immigrant advocacy groups have pressed for change in border patrol tactics. Tighter border enforcement in California and Texas in the mid-1990s pushed the flow of illegal border crossers to Arizona, where remote desert areas became the top entry point for migrants, some of whom perished making the journey.

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