SAN DIEGO — With border crossings at a 40-year low, the U.S. Border Patrol announced a new strategy Tuesday that targets repeat crossers and tries to find out why they keeping coming.
For nearly two decades, the Border Patrol has relied on a strategy that blanketed heavily trafficked corridors for illegal immigrants with agents, pushing migrants to more remote areas where they would presumably be easier to capture and discouraged from trying again.
"The jury, for me at least, is out on whether that's a solid strategy," Chief Mike Fisher told The Associated Press.
The new approach is more nuanced. Outlined in a 32-page document that took more than two years to develop, agents will now draw on intelligence to identify repeat crossers and others perceived as security threats, said Fisher.
"This whole risk-based approach is trying to figure out who are these people? What risk do they pose from a national security standpoint? The more we know, the better informed we are about identifying the threat and potential risk," he said in a recent interview.
During testimony before a House Homeland Security subcommittee Tuesday, Fisher was repeatedly asked why the new strategy didn't include any specific "metrics" that could help members of Congress and the public better understand if the border is secure.
"How can you possibly measure if the border is secure at all?" asked Texas Republican Michael McCaul.
Fisher defended the strategy, saying it will help agents use the resources at the border to better understand what is really happening.
Conditions on the border have changed dramatically since the last national strategy, putting pressure on the agency to adapt to a new landscape. An unprecedented hiring boom more than doubled the number of agents to 21,000 since 2004, accompanied by heavy spending on fencing, cameras, sensors and other gizmos.
At the same time, migration from Mexico has slowed significantly. Last year, the Border Patrol made 327,577 apprehensions on the Mexican border, down 80 percent from more than 1.6 million in 2000. It was the slowest year since 1971.
The Pew Hispanic Center reported last month that the largest wave of migrants from a single country in U.S. history had stopped increasing and may have reversed.
Douglas Massey, a Princeton University sociology professor who studies Mexican immigration trends, said those who enter the United States illegally now have often been deported recently, are seeking to reunite with family, or are experienced at evading capture.
"There are no new migrants coming to the U.S. The people who are coming all have some prior experience in the U.S," he said.
The new strategy moves to halt a revolving-door policy of sending migrants back to Mexico without any punishment. It is the Border Patrol's third strategy since 1994 and its first in eight years. Previous efforts poured resources into the nation's busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
The Border Patrol now feels it has enough of a handle to begin imposing more serious consequences on almost everyone it catches from Texas' Rio Grande Valley to San Diego. In January, it expanded its "Consequence Delivery System" to the entire border, dividing border crossers into seven categories, ranging from first-time offenders to people with criminal records.
Punishments vary by region but there is a common thread: Simply turning people around after taking their fingerprints is the choice of last resort. Some, including children and the medically ill, will still get a free pass by being turned around at the nearest border crossing, but they will be few and far between.
The new strategy makes no mention of expanding fences and other physical barriers, a departure from the administration of President George W. Bush. Fisher said he would not rule out more fences but, "It's not going to be part of our mantra."
The strategy makes only brief mention of technology in the wake of a failed $1 billion program that was supposed to put a network of cameras, ground sensors and radars along the entire border. Fisher said the agency is moving more toward mobile surveillance like unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters.
"We're still trying to understand what the capabilities are with all the technologies and the platforms," Fisher said. "I'm just trying to figure out what is the best suite on all this stuff."
The strategy makes it a top priority to ferret out corrupt agents, which has emerged as a growing threat as the agency has expanded.
The Border Patrol's first national strategy was produced in 1994 as agency poured resources into the San Diego and El Paso, Texas, areas. That effort pushed migrants to remote mountains and deserts and made Arizona the nation's busiest crossing for illegal crossings.
___Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.