The number of illegal immigrants crossing the southwestern border surged in April, reaching the highest point in nearly two years as Central American families and children traveling alone continued to test the Obama administration’s border controls.
More than 38,000 illegal immigrants were caught in April, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in new figures released Monday — the highest since July 2014, which was near the peak of the last surge that exposed massive holes in border and immigration policy.
The number of illegal immigrant children caught while traveling alone — known as unaccompanied alien children, or UAC — reached 5,219. And the number of family members caught traveling together reached 5,616.
But perhaps more worrisome is the spike in other illegal immigrants, who topped 27,000 for the first time in nearly two months, signaling that the problems at the border are not simply children and families fleeing violence back home, but also include the regular type of illegal immigrant traveling to the U.S. for work, and enticed by the promises of lax enforcement.
As bad as the new surge is, it’s still lower than the peak month of June of 2014, when more than 27,000 unaccompanied children and family “units” were caught.
In a statement, CBP acknowledged the new surge this year, but said efforts are being made to try to get a handle on the situation.
“We continue to work aggressively to address the underlying causes of this migration, to deter future increases, to further secure our border and ensure safe, orderly processing, and to support broader regional efforts to provide avenues for protection of vulnerable populations in Central America,” the border agency said.
The surge is not just growing — it’s also spreading. Western Texas and Arizona have seen massive increases in the number of illegal immigrant children and families.
Yuma County, Arizona, Sheriff Leon N. Wilmot said there are both push and pull factors drawing the surge of migrants into western Arizona.
“They’re coming across, they’re turning themselves in, and basically a lot of it has to do with the fact they’re obtaining the assistance with regards to when they’re released,” he said.
He also said that migrants are looking for safer spaces to cross on the Mexican side of the border, and for whatever reason, the cartels are less violent in the region just south of Yuma than they are elsewhere.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson thought he had the surge licked last year, as numbers dropped. Overall, fiscal year 2015 saw the lowest number of illegal immigrants caught since the 1970s. The Border Patrol uses apprehensions as a yardstick for overall traffic, and believes fewer apprehensions means fewer people are trying to cross in the first place.
But apprehensions began to rise late last year, and Mr. Johnson has been forced to confront the issue again.
He’s already approved a series of raids designed to round up and deport Central Americans who came in the surge. An initial round of raids in January netted about 120 illegal immigrants — less than one-tenth of a percent of the total surge.
A new round of raids has been approved, and authorities hope it will send a signal to those in Central America not to try the crossing.
To drive the point home, Mr. Johnson last week traveled to El Salvador and Honduras — which along with Guatemala account for much of the new surge — to insist people won’t be allowed in.
“Our borders are not open to illegal or ‘irregular’ migration,” Mr. Johnson said.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said it will take more than Mr. Johnson’s words to get the message across.
“With the current catch-and-release policies still in place, and almost no enforcement happening, almost no one being sent home, there are still huge incentives for people in Central America to do whatever they can to get here, because they know they’re going to be allowed to stay here for the foreseeable future,” she said.
The chief of the Border Patrol’s labor union has testified to Congress that his agents are being told to quickly release illegal immigrants who don’t meet President Obama’s enforcement priorities. That means that migrants dripping wet from just having swum the Rio Grande get released, as long as they insist they were here before 2014 — the cutoff date Mr. Obama has set for triggering deportation.
But immigrant-rights advocates argue that too many people are still being deported, even under Mr. Obama’s relaxed standards.
Activists rallied outside the Capitol last week, demanding the president halt the next round of raids, and that he allow illegal immigrant families more chances to make their case in court — helped by taxpayer-funded lawyers.
The activists said the raids could even dampen Hispanic turnout for Democratic candidates in November’s election, if Latino voters punish Mr. Obama.
Ms. Vaughan, though, said surging illegal immigration could be just as big of a political liability for Democrats, underscoring the struggles of Mr. Obama’s immigration agencies.
“This is the new normal now, and they’re fine with that,” she said.