- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The tide of illegal immigrant families and unaccompanied children receded in January and Homeland Security claimed a partial victory Tuesday, saying stepped up enforcement has gotten the message back to Central Americans that they shouldn’t try to make the trip north.

Just 3,133 unaccompanied minors were caught at the border in January, which was down from 6,786 the month before. And the number of family members traveling together fell from nearly 9,000 in December to just 3,145 last month.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called the drop “encouraging,” but said his department must keep up the pressure on illegal immigrants in order to prevent a relapse.

“Our policy is clear: we will continue to enforce the immigration laws and secure our borders consistent with our priorities and values. At the same time, we will offer vulnerable populations in Central America an alternative, safe and legal path to a better life,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement.

Usually the department waits several weeks to release its monthly numbers, but Homeland Security speeded the good news this week just two days into the new month.

January’s number, while less than December’s, was still about 50 percent more children and nearly twice the number of family members caught at the border in January 2015.

The surge of children, which began in earnest in 2014, has embarrassed the Obama administration, catching both Homeland Security and the Health and Human Services Department off guard. Border Patrol agents were overwhelmed with apprehending the illegal immigrants, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents struggled to process and deport the families, and social workers at HHS struggled to house the children.

A Senate investigation last week revealed that HHS cut corners on background checks, releasing children into unsafe conditions where they were sent to live with sexual predators or put into forced labor. HHS insists it’s improved its background checks since.

The surge of children and families is coming chiefly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — known as the Northern Triangle of Central America — where gang violence is endemic.

El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the western hemisphere in 2015, with 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to insightcrime.com. Honduras was third with 57, and Guatemala fifth with 30. Mexico, by contrast, had 13. The U.S. figure is less than 4.

The Obama administration has blamed those high murder rates and a breakdown of social order for spurring an exodus of people from the three countries.

Internal Border Patrol information, gleaned from interviews with illegal crossers, instead puts the blame on lax U.S. enforcement, with illegal immigrants believing if they can get to the border they’ll be admitted at least temporarily. That is, in fact, what usually happens.

Mr. Johnson had thought he’d licked the surge back in 2014, when the number of children and family members peaked at more than 20,000 a month in May and June. And the numbers did drop, falling to about 1,600 family members and 2,100 unaccompanied children in January 2015.

Since then, however, the numbers had steadily climbed, and fiscal year 2016, which began in October, was on pace to be the worst year yet.

The dip in January did not comfort security experts.

“This is still a huge number of people who are being waved in,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “What most people want to know is, when are they going to start sending people home, and when are they going to stop letting them come in?”

Hoping to restore some order, Mr. Johnson late last year approved a series of raids to target some of the illegal immigrant families who came during the 2014 surge and who a judge had ordered deported, but who were defying the order.

Only 77 illegal immigrants were deported in the first series of raids around the first week of the new year — though they were fiercely decried by immigrant-rights advocates who said they spread fear throughout the Hispanic community.

But Ms. Vaughan said the 77 deportations was a shockingly low number, given that some 100 unaccompanied children and 100 more families crossed each day in January

“A one-off operation resulting in 77 removals is not exactly sustained enforcement,” she said. “I hope they do keep it up, but it would be more effective and less expensive if they would simply process people for expedited removal near the border – that would save everyone a lot of grief.”

Administration officials balked at calling the arrests “raids,” but advocates said that was a game of semantics.

“When ICE agents push their way into your home and takes your relatives away to a detention center, that’s a raid,” said Tania Unzueta, Policy Director for the Not1More Campaign, which wants to see a halt in all deportations.

Top Democrats, including presidential candidates and leaders in Congress, have demanded a halt to the raids.

Mr. Johnson said his agents are not trying to go after illegal immigrants at churches, schools, hospitals or other “sensitive locations.” But he said he’s not backing down on the need for the arrests and deportations.

“Our borders are not open to illegal migration,” he said. “If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered deported by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home.”

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