Stretches of secondary fencing are topped with spirals of concertina wire along the U.S.-Mexico border between the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry, in San Diego on Aug. 16, 2017. (Brandon Quester/inewsource)

Immigration figures released this week show the lowest number of people trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in decades. Meanwhile, deportations of people living illegally in the United States are up significantly.

[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]Trump administration officials have pointed to border apprehension numbers as a reason to strengthen and possibly lengthen the wall that separates U.S. and Mexico. A recent inewsource and KPBS investigation found most of the existing wall was built in the past 12 years.[/box]

So are President Donald Trump’s immigration policies working or is there more behind the numbers?

Ev Meade, director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, said the decline in apprehensions is part of a trend that began 17 years ago.

“It’s not something that has to do with this presidential administration over the last year, nor does it really have to do with the previous presidential administration,” Meade said. “It’s driven by larger social forces, not by the politics of the moment.”

For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Border Patrol agents detained 303,916 people for trying to enter the U.S. illegally at the southern border this past fiscal year, the fewest since 1971, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement also deported 81,603 people in fiscal 2017, a 37 percent increase from the previous year.

Immigration officials touted the deportations at a news conference Tuesday, where they credited Trump with making it easier for ICE agents to remove people living here illegally. Former President Barack Obama had changed deportation priorities, telling agents to focus on criminals, and that action significantly cut the number of people being removed.

“These results are proof of what the men and women of ICE can accomplish when they are empowered to fulfill their mission,” Thomas Homan, ICE’s deputy director, said in a statement.

The Trump administration also used the new numbers to again promote one of the president’s central campaign promises — that the 653-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border needs to be fortified.

An inewsource and KPBS investigation last month found the current U.S.-Mexico border wall is a relatively new structure. Almost 90 percent of it was built in the past 12 years under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

The America’s Wall project analyzed newly disclosed records from Customs and Border Protection as well as decades of immigration and enforcement numbers. They showed how construction of the wall had pushed illegal entry into more remote, and often more dangerous, parts of the southern border.

Explore an interactive map showing every mile of the current U.S-Mexico border wall.

Construction of the wall coincided at times with a massive decline in detentions for illegal entry, which started immediately after a peak of 1.6 million in 2000.

“This is a big, long-term generational change, where many fewer people are trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border than were 17 years ago,” Meade said.

During that period, economic conditions in Mexico improved, which kept more potential migrants from leaving. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered an economic recession that began at the end of 2007 and lasted for several years.

The significant uptick in deportations this past year can be attributed to Trump’s tougher policies, Meade said.

“The directives that have come down from on high have told (ICE agents) to be much more aggressive in interior enforcement operations,” he said.

The nearly 82,000 deportations in fiscal 2017 are the most since 2014. However, it’s only about a third of the nearly 238,000 deportations in fiscal 2009, during Obama’s first year in office. But that was also before Obama told ICE agents they should focus on deporting criminals.

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Almost 17 percent of last year’s deportees also didn’t have a criminal record, compared to less than 8 percent the previous year.

Meade said there are limited resources for enforcement, so making it easier to deport anyone living illegally in the U.S., including those who were not original targets of an investigation, could make it easier for the more serious criminal element to slip through the cracks.

“If they’re also picking up people at courthouses and doctors offices and hospitals, … that’s enforcement resources that they’re not directing towards people who might actually be a danger to the community,” Meade said.

Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.