The surge of children and families crossing the southwest border illegally accelerated again in September, leaving fiscal year 2015 the second-worst on record, according to numbers released Wednesday by the Border Patrol.
Agents caught 4,476 children traveling without parents on the border last month and 5,273 parents and children traveling as families — both of those nearly twice the level of September 2014, suggesting that smugglers have once again stepped up their efforts to entice Central Americans to make the crossing.
It was a disappointing end to a year that began with major drops in illegal crossings, leading officials to say they may have been on track for the lowest pace since the early 1970s.
Instead, the fiscal year ended Sept. 30 with mixed news of a drop in children and families from 2014, but a year-end trend that suggested the problem is far from solved.
Border Patrol officials in Washington blamed violence and poor economic conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras for pushing illegal immigrants to flee their homes and head north, but agents on the ground said the problem is lax U.S. enforcement, which entices migrants to make the dangerous journey, assured that they will be allowed in the U.S. rather than turned away at the border.
“We’re talking about the rule of law in other countries; we’re not enforcing the rule of law in this country,” Chris Cabrera, an official with the National Border Patrol Council, the labor union for line agents, testified to the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.
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Central American families and children caught at the border are given papers setting court dates but are then released into the U.S. The government calls those documents “notices to appear,” but the illegal immigrants regularly refer to them as “permisos,” or free passes, because they give tentative permission to be in the country while they await their court appearances.
“In Border Patrol circles, that paperwork is now known as the ‘notice to disappear’ — 80 percent, 90 percent of those folks will not show up for that hearing,” Mr. Cabrera testified.
Illegal immigrants have even begun posting photos of their permisos on social media, telling friends and family how easy it is to gain access to the U.S., investigators told Congress.
In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, said it is aware that smugglers use the promise of permisos to entice people to immigrate, but the agency insisted it is trying to get tough.
“We are closely monitoring current trends and coordinating across the whole of government to ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows. We continue to aggressively work to secure our borders, address underlying causes and deter future increases in unauthorized migration, while ensuring that those with legitimate humanitarian claims are afforded the opportunity to seek protection,” the agency said.
Officials also said they have begun a public relations campaign to try to discourage illegal crossings.
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But the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative branch, said Homeland Security began that campaign too late this year and still doesn’t have any way of measuring whether the messages are working, or whether they can compete with the social media messages from illegal immigrants.
In fiscal year 2015, border agents caught nearly 40,000 children, down from 68,541 the previous year. Another 40,000 parents and children, down from 68,445 in 2014, were caught traveling together.
But the numbers were heading even lower until late summer when agents suddenly noticed a surge.
The surge is striking because overall illegal crossings of the southwestern border are thought to be down. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said this month that just 331,000 illegal immigrants were caught at the border from Oct. 1, 2014, through Sept. 30, 2015 — down about a third from approximately 479,000 caught a year earlier.
Officials say the number of migrants caught at the border is a good measure of how many are also getting through — so an increase in apprehensions signals an overall increase in the flow.
In court papers this summer, Homeland Security officials argued that part of their success in fighting the surge last year was their get-tough approach on families. Mr. Johnson opened several family detention centers to hold illegal immigrants, making it easier to get them to their court dates and deport them quickly.
But a federal judge has ruled that extended family detention violates a decades-old court settlement and has demanded that Homeland Security change its policies by Friday and more quickly release illegal immigrant families. Homeland Security has warned that could lead to an even bigger surge as smugglers move to exploit the policy.