The number of immigrant arrests on the border with Mexico stands at its lowest level in 40 years, undermining conservative claims that the zone is "out of control" and leading activists to insist the time is right for comprehensive immigration reform.

So far in fiscal year 2011, which ends on Sept. 30, 447,731 immigrants have been arrested along the southern border, a figure that represents a significant decline in the average of about a million arrests annually in the 1980s and '90s.

Figures compiled by the Border Patrol show that after peaking at 1.5 million in 1999, arrests of undocumented immigrants have declined every year beginning in 2006.

Although in the 1990s it was estimated that for every arrested undocumented immigrant two others managed to avoid the Border Patrol, now thanks to aerial monitoring, the greater number of Border Patrol personnel in the region and technological advances, calculations are that in the sectors of El Paso, Texas; Yuma, Arizona; and San Diego about 90 percent of all those who cross the border illegally are captured.

The point of view that the southern border was "out of control" intensified in the 1990s, creating the conditions for building the triple border wall along the frontier between Tijuana and San Diego which is currently pushing immigration flows eastward into Arizona.

Academic Joseph Nevins, author of the book "Operation Guardian," says that anti-immigrant sentiment crystallized in public political terms in 1994, when the Clinton administration implemented Operation Guardian in California, erecting new physical and legal barriers to undocumented immigrants.

As a consequence of Guardian, the number of Border Patrol agents in San Diego grew from 4,200 in 1994 to 9,212 in 2000, a situation that forced undocumented immigrants to shift their border crossing attempts to the often-deadly Arizona desert.

In 1986, U.S. authorities arrested 629,656 immigrants in San Diego, compared with 71,675 in Tucson, while so far during the current fiscal year 212,202 arrests have been made in the Tucson Sector compared with 68,565 here.

Activist Pedro Rios, with the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, told Efe that although it is clear that the economic crisis has put the brakes on immigration, what has not declined is the number of people who have died trying to cross the border.

"The presence of (Border Patrol) agents makes the flow move to more dangerous zones and take more time. Bodies have been found up to 75 miles north of the border. We have about 6,000 dead people since 1994," said Rios.

"The border, as the low numbers of immigrant arrests show, does not need to be militarized any more. It's regrettable that there continues to exist a discourse that says that before getting started with immigration reform, the border must be secured, when now it is," said Rios.

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