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U.S. decline reported in illegal immigration

'We are making progress,' federal official says of drop

TUCSON, Ariz. — A top federal official said Thursday that the Border Patrol during a recent crackdown has reduced illegal immigration along the well-traveled route from Mexico into Arizona.

"We are making progress . . . in decreasing numbers and the flow of aliens across Arizona," said Robert Bonner, commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In a telephone interview from Washington, he noted that total apprehensions of illegal immigrants crossing into Arizona dropped about 13 percent over the past six months compared to the same period a year earlier.

"Same song, different day," countered the Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, a Tucson-based organization that places water along desert trails frequented by illegal immigrants.

"What is needed is for Commissioner Bonner to come out for comprehensive immigration reform so that we can get people out of the desert in the first place," Hoover said.

Hoover contended that none of the federal efforts since 1993 have resulted in overall reductions in the number of people migrating.

Bonner acknowledged that the number of immigrants dying in Arizona's deserts — 176 just during the six months since the current initiative started, and 238 for the fiscal year, which ends in a week — has smashed previous records. "The loss of even a single life is tragic," Bonner said.

But he added, "It has been one of the hottest seasons in the Sonoran Desert and Arizona in a number of years."

In recent years, Arizona has been the most active point along the Mexican border for illegal immigrants. The state accounted for 54 percent of the 1.1 million illegal immigrant apprehensions nationwide during the 2004 fiscal year.

The initial focus of the latest operation was in the west desert, about 110 miles of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector. That sector encompasses all but about the 80 westernmost miles of Arizona's border with Mexico. The rest is covered by agents in the Yuma sector.

Bonner said officials knew some traffic would shift elsewhere along the border. In fact, increased arrests this year have transformed the Yuma station into the nation's busiest for migrant apprehensions. Bonner said there's also been increased traffic in the area around Deming, N.M.

Hoover said the shift amounted to the "cat chasing the mouse."