Illegal immigration across the southwest border plummeted in the weeks after President Trump took office, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly announced Wednesday, calling the drop an early sign that Mr. Trump’s get-tough policies are working.
In addition to a drop in the number of illegal immigrants nabbed while attempting to cross, Mr. Kelly said, they have seen a dramatic spike in the rates charged by smugglers paid to sneak people into the U.S.
Routes that cost $3,500 in November now cost $8,000, he said — another signal that smuggling cartels’ business is suffering.
Mr. Kelly called the drop in apprehensions unprecedented. The number of people caught at the border is considered a good indication of the overall flow, so a drop in apprehensions is believed to signal a drop in total number of illegal crossings.
“This trend is encouraging because it means many fewer people are putting themselves and their families at risk of exploitation, assault and injury by human traffickers and the physical dangers of the treacherous journey north,” Mr. Kelly said.
All told, 23,589 people were caught trying to enter without permission at the border in February. That was the lowest number for the month in years and a 40 percent drop from the 42,504 caught in January.
In fact, it’s the lowest number for any month dating back at least to 2012, when monthly statistics were first released.
The Obama administration and its allies among immigrant rights groups had long argued that the surge of illegal immigration in recent years, chiefly from Central America, was a result of people fleeing horrific conditions.
Those groups argued that there was little the U.S. could or should do to stem the flow.
But Border Patrol officials, in internal documents, had said the surge was a result of lax enforcement within the U.S. They had predicted that a policy imposing tougher consequences for illegal immigration could stem the flow.
Mr. Kelly said Wednesday that appears to be the case.
“The early results show that enforcement matters, deterrence matters, and that comprehensive immigration enforcement can make an impact,” he said.
The drop was severe across all categories.
The number of unaccompanied illegal immigrant children caught by the Border Patrol fell below 2,000, while the number of people traveling as families was just 3,124. In January, that number had been 9,300, and in December, it had been more than 16,000.
Even particularly tricky countries such as Haiti saw improvement. In January, more than 1,600 Haitians showed up at ports of entry demanding to be admitted. In February, that number dropped to 218.
Mr. Kelly said the massive changes were the result of Mr. Trump’s policies, which have given agents at the border and in the interior more leeway to arrest and deport illegal immigrants.
Mr. Trump has also promised to hire 5,000 more border agents and to build a wall across the southwest border, though neither of those plans has taken shape.
Instead, would-be immigrants appear to be responding to Mr. Trump’s get-tough rhetoric.
Mr. Kelly said his department will be monitoring to see what happens in March, April and May, when the number of apprehensions — and therefore crossers — usually jumps.
President Obama oversaw a major drop in the number of Mexicans coming across the border during his time in office — a result of a sour U.S. economy, an improving Mexican economy and a willingness to impose penalties on those nabbed.
But U.S. policy was more relaxed toward illegal immigrants from Central America.
They were generally arrested, given court dates and released into the interior of the U.S., where they often absconded, disappearing into the shadows with the estimated 11 million other illegal immigrants.