- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2018

The number of migrants demanding asylum at the U.S. border soared 67 percent in 2018, Homeland Security officials said Monday, swamping an already overloaded system and fueling a testy debate on Capitol Hill over how the government is responding.

Both the official border crossings and Border Patrol agents who monitor spaces between the ports of entry reported massive increases, and authorities said the numbers could have been even higher but there’s just not enough space to process and hold people, particularly at the ports.

“Migrants may have to need to stay and wait in Mexico until space opens up,” said one official at Customs and Border Protection, who briefed reporters on the new numbers on condition he not be named. “This number would be higher, again, if not for the facility and resource constraints at the ports of entry.”

Asylum has become the new soft underbelly of illegal immigration across the border.

In fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, nearly 93,000 people — almost a third of migrants who showed up at ports of entry without permission, and 14 percent of those nabbed jumping the border between the crossings — took the first step in claiming asylum.

That’s up from 55,584 claims in 2017.

Federal officials say migrants are being coached by the smuggling cartels on what to do, and they make the claims knowing that even if their case is weak, they’ll be admitted and given a chance to argue it — and usually will be released into the community to await hearings.

Fewer than 20 percent will actually qualify, based on historical trends, but many of the others will fail to show up for their cases or deportations, disappearing into the shadows with the 11 million other illegal immigrants.

One CBP official said it’s part of a “multibillion-dollar human smuggling industry,” and Border Patrol agents say the smugglers will often use migrants as interference, directing them to one particular entry point to keep agents occupied while drugs or higher-value people are smuggled elsewhere.

Faced with the flood of claims, U.S. officials have begun to throttle the flow at the ports of entry, limiting the number of people allowed to show up and present their claims. But that’s drawn complaints from immigrant-rights activists who say the government needs to be more generous in admitting and releasing asylum-seekers.

Government officials say they are constrained by their holding cells and by their other missions, such as counterterrorism or trying to sniff out narcotics that usually come through the ports.

CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said Congress needs to step in and provide a better solution.

“As the majority of these claims will not be successful when they are adjudicated by an immigration court, we need Congress to act to address these vulnerabilities in our immigration system which continue to negatively impact border security efforts,” he said.

The new numbers underscore an ongoing change in migration patterns to the U.S.

Where Mexicans used to dominate the illegal flow across the border, now it’s primarily Central Americans, chiefly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Some pay what’s known as a “mafia fee” of $2,000 or more to smugglers, just to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Once across, some will turn themselves in, hoping to take advantage of the lax U.S. asylum system. Others will pay $8,000 or more to be smuggled to destinations far from the border, where family or jobs await.

The smuggling has become a major moneymaker for the cartels that control the flow, and for down-and-out Americans looking to make a quick buck.

It’s usually single adults who are paying the higher fees.

Families, meanwhile, will pay mafia fees for the crossing, but since they turn themselves in, they won’t pay to be smuggled into locations inside the U.S. Instead they rely on the government to process them and release them on the promise that they return for deportation hearings — a promise that is often broken.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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