The U.S. Border Patrol is catching fewer illegal immigrants trying to cross the border, and immigration agents are arresting and deporting fewer people from the interior of the country, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday, calling those the successful outcomes of President Obama’s immigration policies.
Mr. Johnson said only about 331,000 illegal immigrants were caught on the border in fiscal year 2015, which ended last week. That was the lowest number since 2011. When the numbers are finalized, they could dip to rates not seen since the early 1970s.
The decrease in apprehensions is considered a good sign because it means fewer people are trying to cross the border illegally.
“Our investments in border security have led to these results,” Mr. Johnson said at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s convention in Washington.
Meanwhile, deportations from the interior are also down drastically as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents catch fewer illegal immigrants, thanks to policies ordering agents to focus on serious criminals and to release most others.
Mr. Johnson didn’t release the latest numbers, but The Associated Press reported Tuesday that 231,000 people were deported in fiscal year 2015 — the lowest level since 2006 and only a little more than half of the 400,000 that the administration used to say it had the budget to deport.
More striking, the wire service said the number of criminals was also down.
Mr. Johnson said that is partly because of the greater effort required to track down immigrants and to the reluctance of “sanctuary cities” to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. In the past, agents would wait for illegal immigrant criminals to be released from prisons and jails, but now they often must track down criminals in the communities where they have been released.
On the downside, Mr. Johnson said the agency is seeing a renewed surge of illegal immigrants from Central America — the same flow that caught his department off guard last year and derailed the president’s push for a broad immigration legalization bill in Congress.
Mr. Johnson’s department, in court, has blamed the surge on smugglers who tell would-be migrants that they can sneak into the U.S. without fear of repercussions. But on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson said the surge was the result of conditions in Central America.
“It’s because of the poverty and the violence in those countries, and we just simply have to address that,” he said, urging more American spending to boost those societies.
Overall, Mr. Johnson said, the reduced apprehensions and deportations are proof that the president’s immigration executive actions, announced in November, are working.
Mr. Johnson also said more steps are on the way.
He announced guidelines that will encourage officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to grant humanitarian waivers to migrants with family members in the U.S. who would suffer “extreme hardship” if they were separated.
One common example is an illegal immigrant who marries a U.S. citizen and then applies for status. Under current law, the immigrant is to be barred for up to 10 years before entering the U.S. legally.
Under the new guidance, Mr. Johnson said, authorities can grant a waiver to an illegal immigrant with children so the family would not be split up.
“Common sense tells me it would be an extreme hardship on you to have to raise those kids alone,” Mr. Johnson said.
Critics said the guidelines will allow more undeserving immigrants to stay in the U.S.
“This is a surreal distortion of the plain language and intent of the law,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “It is a flagrant attempt to launder the status of tens of thousands of people who simply are not eligible to be admitted as immigrants, either because they have criminal backgrounds or other problems in their application or because they have lived here illegally and are subject to penalties for that.”
She said one particularly outrageous provision allows for a waiver even if the spouse dies.
“How can someone be harmed by a visa refusal if they are dead?” she said.
David W. Leopold, a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the proposal doesn’t change the standards, but instead gives guidance so officers can apply the rules more uniformly.
“Much of this is things that most of us already knew, but it’s good to see it laid out. So the question then becomes, how will the field implement it,” he said.
More broadly, he praised the announcement of lower deportations, saying it was a sign that Mr. Obama had moved beyond his high deportation years, when more than 400,000 illegal immigrants a year were sent home.
Immigrant rights advocates have said the president tried high deportations as a way to entice congressional Republicans to work with him on legalization, but the lawmakers didn’t waver.
“The bottom line on the lower removal numbers is that it’s definitely welcome news and we’re moving in the right direction. But there is a lot more to do,” Mr. Leopold said. “Millions of mixed immigration status American families were torn apart over the past six years. We need to ensure that the president’s immigration enforcement priorities, which are focused on the deportation of criminals and security threats, are followed consistently throughout the country.”