Illegal immigration across the southwestern border is on pace for the lowest year since 1972, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Monday, claiming success a year after the surge of illegal immigrant children and families exposed major holes in U.S. policy.
Mr. Johnson said there is no guarantee that apprehensions — which he said are a direct indication of the total flow of illegal immigrants — will keep on that four-decade low pace, but said the signs are encouraging.
“The bottom line of all this is, in recent years the total number of those who attempt to illegally cross our southwest border has declined dramatically, while the percentage of those who are apprehended has gone up,” the secretary said at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “Put simply, it’s now much harder to cross our border illegally and evade capture than it used to be — and people know that.”
Through May, or the first eight months of the fiscal year, the Border Patrol had caught 213,145 illegal immigrants at the border. That was down 34 percent from the same point in 2014.
Even with the successes, Mr. Johnson said, they “are not — repeat, not — declaring mission accomplished.”
He said he remains vigilant because the U.S. is still an attractive destination for the poor in Central America, and the improving economy here could draw more attempts.
Central American migration has become the biggest test of border security in the past several years, surpassing the flow of Mexicans, which had dominated for decades.
Last summer, tens of thousands of illegal immigrant children traveling alone from Central America, and tens of thousands more mothers with young children, surged into Texas, with a huge spike in May and June.
But those numbers have abated.
In May 2014, 10,737 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the southwestern border. Last month, by contrast, the number was just 3,950. That’s still higher than any month since August, but is about at the levels found in mid-2013, before the surge became pronounced.
Much of Mr. Johnson’s math relies on an assumption that the more people the Border Patrol catches, the more are coming across — and vice versa. Mr. Johnson said he believes a drop in apprehensions is “a direct reflection of total attempts.”
But Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager for NumbersUSA, which advocates for stricter immigration limits, said top border officials have wavered on that equation, with some suggesting that more apprehensions is a good sign.
And Mr. Johnson, in his speech, said he believes they are doing a better job catching more of those crossing — which would suggest the equation of apprehensions to successful attempts is fluid.
Ms. Jenks said one problem is that Homeland Security scrapped its previous definition of border security in 2010, and has yet to come up with a replacement.
“It’s a little hard to see how the secretary of Homeland Security could say basically that the border is secure when they don’t have a way to measure whether the border is secure,” she said. “Seems like there’s still a lot of illegal immigration.”
In response to an inspector general’s report last month, Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security agency that oversees the border, said it will finalize its new border security yardstick by October, combining 12 different measures, including number of apprehensions, amount of drugs seized, levels of violence along the border and rate of recidivism for border crossers who are deported.
Ms. Jenks said the key measure is the size of the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. On that score, the administration appears to be holding steady at slightly more than 11 million — down from more than 12 million in the middle of the last decade, but static for the last four or five years.
However, Mr. Johnson had to rely on outside estimates for those numbers, since the Homeland Security Department’s own estimates of the illegal population have become less frequent.
Mr. Johnson regularly takes heat from both sides of the immigration debate. While those who want to see a crackdown say he’s being too lenient, immigrant rights advocates have urged him to halt all deportations and to stop detaining illegal immigrants.
The secretary, however, defended some of the stiffer enforcement practices his department put in place to combat last year’s surge, including building more detention space to house families — usually mothers with children — who are caught along the border.
He said that while they’ve taken steps to ameliorate some of the complaints, detention is a critical part of ensuring illegal immigrants show up for deportations and has helped stem the surge. He said most families are never held, and most of those that are detained are only kept for a short period of time and then released into the community, with the hope that they will return when it’s time to be processed for deportation.
Still, he said they’ve begun a review to try to figure out what other families can be released, with a particular eye to those that have been kept more than 90 days in government housing.