Illegal immigration across the southwest border surged last month as President Trump’s zero-tolerance effort crumbled, and smugglers and migrant families rushed to take advantage of renewed “catch-and-release” loopholes.
Border officials acknowledged a “crisis” as the number of families reached record levels, topping even the worst days of the Obama administration.
It’s so bad that caravans of families like the one that drew headlines this spring have become commonplace. Authorities reported groups of 65, 65, 66, 96 and 163 illegal immigrants caught in just the last two weeks — with children as young as four months being carried through the scorching deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona.
The caravans are a sign of how brazen migrants have become, said Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He said they know there’s little the administration can do, given court decisions hindering deportations, and lack of resources from Congress.
“These are a very direct response to the vulnerabilities in our legal framework,” he said.
He said the numbers were “expected,” given the administration’s widely publicized retreat from its zero-tolerance policy at the border, which came after immigrant-rights activists and members of Congress from both parties complained. Mr. McAleenan said that fight may even have perversely encouraged more people to come, after they became aware of the “loophole” of more lax treatment for illegal immigrant families.
With a month still to go in this fiscal year the Border Patrol has already caught more than 90,000 “family units” of parents and children traveling together — including 12,744 in August alone. That was up 38 percent compared to July.
Agents also nabbed another 4,396 Unaccompanied Alien Children, or children traveling without parents, which was an 11.6 percent increase. At the ports of entry, meanwhile, CBP officers encountered 9,016 unauthorized migrants, including 3,181 family units and 376 UAC.
Officials believe the number of people caught trying to sneak in is a rough yardstick for the overall flow, so a rise in apprehensions signals a rise in overall illegal immigration.
The families and children are somewhat different, though.
While adults who arrive at the border without children are usually detained until they can be deported, migrants who show up with children in tow get quickly released from custody. They rarely return for their deportations, instead taking the chance to disappear into the shadows.
Mr. McAleenan said the incentives are so skewed that families and children actually want to get caught when they show up at the border.
“Now with families and kids, there are no consequences to being apprehended,” he said.
Indeed, of nearly 95,000 Central American family members nabbed by Border Patrol agents or CBP officers in 2017, 98.6 percent of them are still in the U.S. today, the government says.
And of more than 30,000 UAC nabbed, 98.2 percent were still in the U.S. as of June.
Migrants and the smuggling cartels, which control the flow of people into the U.S., are well aware of the disparate treatment. There’s even been a surge in illegal immigrants abducting children so they can portray themselves as families.
Among agents, the lax treatment of families is known as “catch-and-release,” and it continues to be the biggest issue fueling the illegal immigration surge, said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
He said the government had a window to change the trajectory last year, when Mr. Trump took office and illegal immigrants, scared of tougher enforcement, stopped coming. But they quickly realized the president’s tough talk was belied by lack of backup from Congress and the enforcement agencies, Mr. Judd said.
“Congress obviously didn’t pass laws to close loopholes and the agency failed to implement policies or operations supporting the president’s vision. Instead, the agency’s inaction made the president’s tough talk seem like nothing more than words that can be ignored,” Mr. Judd said.
The Trump administration did try to solve the situation earlier this year with its zero-tolerance policy, which called for jailing illegal immigrant adults — even those who came with children. Because federal jails can’t accommodate children, that meant the families were separated, and the children were put in Health Department-run dorms.
The separations produced a massive outcry from immigrant-rights activists and both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, and a federal judge ordered an end to the practice and demanding the families be reunited.
Mr. Trump also signed an executive order ending the separations — but that restored the family “loophole” that has enticed the new wave of migration.
The 90,563 family units apprehended at the border so far easily tops the record set in 2016, when the total for the full fiscal year was 77,695. Last year’s total was 90,576. Approximately 43,800 more unauthorized family members were encountered at ports of entry.