Illegal immigration in 2016 has already surpassed 2015 with two months still to go in the fiscal year, driven by a renewed surge of illegal immigrant children and families from Central America attempting to sneak into the U.S.
Nearly 34,000 people were caught at the southwest border in July, up 5,000 compared to a year ago. And that brings the total for the first 10 months of the fiscal year to more than 332,000, which puts it ahead of all 12 months of 2015, according to Border Patrol statistics released late last week.
The surge has been powered chiefly by a new increase in the number of children and families from Central America attempting to sneak into the U.S., pushed by violence at home and lured by the hope of amnesty from the Obama administration here. More than 7,500 people traveling as families were nabbed along the border, and another 5,068 children traveling alone were also caught.
The numbers are all the more troubling because they show an increase just as the peak of summer hits — a time when, officials say, the hot weather usually tamps down on the flow. But July saw increases in both children and families trying to cross the border.
Perhaps anticipating the surge, the Obama administration last month announced a series of new programs designed to allow children and their extended relatives to apply for passage to the U.S. from their home countries. The goal is to pressure them into safer routes, rather than have them make the harrowing journey through Mexico.
Homeland Security officials saw a glass-half-full situation in the numbers, pointing to a slight drop in the overall number of illegal immigrants caught — which slipped 2 percent from June to July — as evidence things may be turning in the right direction.
“Overall apprehensions by the Border Patrol in July along our southwest border — an indicator of total attempts to cross the border illegally — fell during the month of July, although apprehensions of unaccompanied children and family units increased somewhat from June. These trends are generally in line with seasonal patterns we have observed in previous years,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security agency that oversees the Border Patrol, said in releasing the numbers.
The Obama administration is trapped in between conflicting political pressures on immigration, and has tried to cut a middle path, allowing almost all illegal immigrants in the interior of the U.S. to remain without fear of being deported, and instead targeting those still trying to cross now.
But mixed messages have hurt that goal, with many would-be crossers from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala believing they can ask for asylum once they reach U.S. territory. An increasing number are, indeed, being granted at least initial protections, enticing more to try.
Human rights groups have said the entire category of illegal immigrants from the worst countries of Central America should be granted refugee status, preventing their deportation.
Activists are also fighting in court to try to get the children and families more rights, including to be released as they await their deportation hearings.
Twenty-two mothers detained with their children at a Pennsylvania holding facility went on a hunger strike last week to protest the conditions they said left them traumatized.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the women said some of their older children have threatened suicide because of the uncertainty of being kept in detention for so long. Four of the 22 mothers who signed the letter have been kept in detention for 365 days.
“We will get out alive or dead,” the women wrote.
The mothers said that under a court ruling earlier this year, the children should have been released within 20 days because they are under age 18.
The administration argued in that court case that people are gaming the immigration system, including some illegal immigrants who are snatching children as they make the journey north, attempting to pose as families to earn more lenient treatment under Obama policies and U.S. immigration law.
Immigrant rights advocates had wanted an appeals court to rule that the administration must quickly release not only children, who are the subject of a 1990s-era consent decree, but also their parents if they come as families. The advocates said the children are required to be released, and the safest place for the children is with their parents, so under the so-called Flores Settlement, the parents must be released too.
The appeals court ruled that all children, whether they come as part of families or alone, do need to be released — but refused to order the parents’ quick release as well.
The immigration numbers could play a role in the fall presidential debate. Democrat Hillary Clinton has promised to expand President Obama’s executive order to make more illegal immigrants in the United States eligible over time for amnesty, while Republican Donald Trump has vowed to build a wall along the Mexican border as part of a larger plan to crack down on illegal immigration.