Illegal immigration by families surged this summer after the collapse of President Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy, reaching record levels and leaving the Trump administration frustrated over the lack of easy solutions.
More than 16,600 illegal immigrant parents and children traveling together were nabbed by the Border Patrol in September, marking the worst month on record and nearly twice the numbers from before the administration tried — and then backed off — zero tolerance.
That helped fuel a surge for the entire fiscal year, with agents catching more than 107,000 family members over 12 months, a 38 percent increase over 2017, and eclipsing the previous record set under President Obama in 2016.
The numbers were released as a migrant caravan, also made up of parents and children, streams north from Central America through Mexico.
“Something needs to be done,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday at the White House. “You can’t have this happen.”
He said he is seriously considering deploying the military to stop the caravan, going beyond the National Guard troops he asked to help earlier this year. “They can do a lot. They’re the military,” he told Pentagon brass at a dinner meeting.
He said broken U.S. laws entice families to attempt the dangerous journey because they are confident they will be released into the interior of the U.S., where they can disappear without fear of deportation.
The president defended his suggestion a day earlier that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the caravan. Some reporters interpreted that to mean terrorists, and they prodded him.
Mr. Trump said he doesn’t have any specific proof but said Middle Easterners and criminals are regularly caught at the border so there are likely to be some amid the thousands in the caravan.
Vice President Mike Pence said he had conversed with the president of Honduras, whose country is responsible for most of the people in the caravan, and was told that the operation was organized by leftist groups and financed in part by Venezuela, whose socialist government is deeply at odds with the U.S. government.
“I’m not letting them in. They’re not coming in,” Mr. Trump said.
The latest estimates put the caravan at 7,000 people, though Mr. Trump said he figures it’s more than 10,000. They broke into Mexico over the weekend, defying that country’s authorities, and are pushing through toward the U.S. border.
Immigrant rights advocates say many people in the caravan should be considered refugees or asylum-seekers escaping violence and rough conditions at home and argue that they not the more traditional illegal immigrants who have come in decades past seeking jobs or to reunite with family already in the U.S. — usually illegally.
Caravan members describe fears of gang or domestic violence, but those have not traditionally been reasons for asylum. That protection is usually applied to people fleeing government persecution or indifference so bad that it might as well be persecution.
Other caravan members cite jobs and family reunification as their aims.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he is working with the Mexican government to try to head off the caravan. Whatever happens, he said, the migrants won’t make it into the U.S. this way.
“I can tell you with certainty we are determined that illegal entry into the United States from this caravan will not be possible,” he said.
That could be a tough promise to keep. Administration officials drew similar lines earlier this year, during a smaller spring caravan, and hundreds of them did come into the U.S.
Of 401 people from the caravan who went through an initial asylum screening, 374 passed it — a 93 percent rate. Almost all of them are likely still in the country.
They are part of the record-setting numbers from fiscal year 2018, which ran from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018.
The Border Patrol nabbed 396,579 people, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers encountered another 124,511 trying to come into the country through official ports of entry. The combined 521,090 people is 25 percent more than 2017, though fewer than the 553,378 unauthorized migrants snared in 2016.
Of the 521,090, nearly one-third were family units and another 11 percent were children traveling unaccompanied — nearly all of them from Central America.
That is a major change from a decade ago when illegal immigrants, whose numbers were much higher, were predominantly single adult males from Mexico.
The Trump administration blames court decisions and a decade-old law that require most of the children and families to be quickly processed and released into the country — the “catch-and-release” practice — to await deportation hearings. Most ignore their hearings and disappear, and the government says it doesn’t have enough officers to track them down.
Of more than 94,000 Central American families who jumped the border in 2017, more than 98 percent — including tens of thousands of unaccompanied children — remain in the U.S., says the Department of Homeland Security.
Mr. Trump has pleaded with Congress to rewrite the laws to allow migrants to be held. Those who are detained can be deported.
It speeds up the process. Immigrants who were detained during their hearings were ordered deported in an average of 40 days. Those released from custody averaged 3,000 days before such orders, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
“Republicans want to close these loopholes and preserve American sovereignty. Democrats want to preserve these loopholes and liquidate American sovereignty,” the official told reporters in a briefing on the numbers.
The official said the migrants are good at adjusting to U.S. laws. After the Trump administration curtailed the ability of people to ask for asylum because of gang violence, he said, they instead started to claim torture, which is still a viable avenue to asylum.
He said those changes can be tracked — though Homeland Security declined to release the data to back up that claim.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the migrants often become victims on the journey north, enriching the smuggling cartels that charge thousands of dollars in crossing fees and burdening American communities that have to deal with them once they arrive.
“It has to be addressed, and there is no doubt that President Trump wants to put a stop to it, but there is only so much he can do without the cooperation of Congress and the courts,” she said. “It’s the policies that are driving this influx, and therefore only changes in policy will stop it.”
She said Homeland Security should be making preparations to try to stop the latest caravan at the U.S. border.