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By Eric Stirgus April 29, 2011

Obama: U.S. has more agents than ever patrolling borders

President Barack Obama offered a defense of his administration’s immigration policies in response to a question about the controversial bill recently passed by Georgia lawmakers to catch illegal immigrants.

"We have now more Border Patrol officers … than we’ve had at any time in our history," Obama told Channel 2 Action News anchor Justin Farmer.

The president’s claim seemed counter to criticism from some Georgia lawmakers and activists who say the federal government has done little to stop people from illegally crossing the U.S. borders and discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants. We decided to check out Obama’s claim.

Homeland Security spokesman Steven Cribby told us there are currently 20,745 Border Patrol agents. Nearly 85 percent of them patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. The rest patrol the U.S.-Canada border. Cribby said there were 17,499 agents by the end of September 2008, nearly four months before Obama took office.

A decade earlier, in 2001, there were about 9,000 Border Patrol officers, according to a March 2010 report compiled for Congress by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. In 1992, the earliest year mentioned in the report, there were 3,555 agents along the Southwest border. About 300 agents patrolled the northern border in 1992.

An official with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports stricter illegal immigration guidelines, did not dispute the federal data. But the official said Obama shouldn’t gloat.

"The Border Patrol has been growing significantly under Obama as well as [under former President George W.] Bush," said Jack Martin, special projects director for FAIR. "So he can take credit for it – but not all of the credit. The big stimulus was a focus on controlling the border in the wake of the 9/11 attacks."

The congressional report supports Martin’s point. The number of agents nearly doubled during Bush’s presidency. However, the average annual increase of Border Patrol agents since Obama took office is about the same as Bush.

Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress, said the toughest critics on immigration policy "continue to move the goal post" on the issue because it is easier to say the border patrol process is faulty rather than what he said are the more complex issues concerning illegal immigration. The Center for American Progress is an organization that has pushed for the federal government to help illegal immigrants to pay taxes and earn legal status in the U.S.

Fitz said the president’s claim is "accurate," but noted there may have been times where there have been more agents at the Southwest border. He pointed to 1954, when an estimated 750,000 illegal immigrants left the United States to avoid a border crackdown. Experts say there were probably only about 750 agents leading the roundup.   

Our colleagues at the national PolitiFact site tackled a similar claim by the president in July 2010 when he said the U.S. had more Border Patrol agents along the Mexican border "than at any time in our history." They took into account the Mexican Expedition during the early 20th century before making their ruling. PolitiFact noted that President Woodrow Wilson sent between 75,000 and 150,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in 1916 to quell a surprise attack in the New Mexico town of Columbus.

Here’s a portion of what prompted them to give Obama a Mostly True ruling: "We do have more agents than anytime since the early 1990s. But there have been times in our history when the U.S. sent troops to the border, and many more people than are there to guard the border today."

Federal data shows the number of agents patrolling America’s borders has increased to its highest levels in the last two decades. There is historical data that shows there has been at least one period in American history in which there were many more authorities patrolling the border. Because of that, we rate the president’s claim as Mostly True.

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Our Sources

Channel 2 Action News, "Obama to WSB-TV: No silver bullet for gas prices," April 27, 2011

E-mail from Homeland Security Department spokesman Steven Cribby, April 27, 2011

E-mail from Jack Martin, special projects director, Federation for American Immigration Reform, April 27, 2011

PolitiFact, "U.S. has more Border Patrol agents on the border of Mexico than ever, but debate goes on," July 2, 2010

Telephone interview with Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy, Center for American Progress, April 27, 2011

U.S. Congressional Research Service, "Border Security: The Role of the U.S. Border Patrol," March 3, 2010

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