TUCSON, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Top officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection credit new sections of the border wall with helping to reduce illegal immigration and drug smuggling during the agency's 2020 fiscal year.

According to numbers released Wednesday, agents and officers apprehended 458,000 people entering the country illegally this year, compared to nearly 1 million last year.

Customs and Border Protection defends wall

Supporters of the border wall said it's helped curb illegal immigration.

"Make no mistake, we are in a better position right now," said Mark Morgan, who is the acting commissioner of CBP.

That encompasses the country's ports of entry, the Border Patrol, and Air and Marine Operations.

Native American protesters block border fence material delivery

Rodney Scott, the Chief Border Patrol Agent, said contractors had completed 360 miles of new border wall so far. Much of that replaced older barrier. Scott said the wall system "allows agents to identify threats sooner and respond faster."

But construction of the border wall has faced criticism from humanitarian groups, who say it has led to increased migrant deaths in the desert, from environmentalists who have documented the destruction of desert lands, and from the Tohono O'Odham Indian nation, whose ancestral land is cut in half.

Earlier this week, Native American activists were arrested during a protest on a highway near one of the construction sites.

President Donald Trump promised to make Mexico pay for the wall, but so far, his administration has funded the project by diverting funds from the U.S. military.

When asked if he thinks the wall is worth it, in light of the expense and the damage it has caused, Acting Commissioner Morgan said yes.

"Here's what I'm going to say to you. In a single year, 71,000 Americans died of drug overdoses. So, yes, I think it's worth it. We arrest gang members, sexual predators, rapists, murderers every single day. So yeah, I'll say it's worth it," said Morgan.

The annual Drug Enforcement Administration National Drug Threat Assessment states that most drugs are not smuggled through the desert.

More than 80 miles of border wall may be painted black after Trump push

"The most common method employed involves smuggling illicit drugs through U.S. POEs (ports of entry) in passenger vehicles," states the 2019 Drug Threat Assessment.

Critics also point to the global coronavirus pandemic as a large factor in reducing illegal immigration, although there is no way to quantify the effect.

Morgan Loew's hard-hitting investigations can be seen weekdays on CBS 5 News at 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

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