President Trump pleaded with Congress to do something as illegal immigration across the southwestern border soared this spring.
Republicans seemed willing, but it was a nonstarter for Democrats. Party leaders even accused Mr. Trump of manufacturing the crisis.
So the president turned to Mexico with a combination of negotiations, controls, threats and even an explicit quid pro quo: Do something to stop 4,000 people from crossing Mexican territory each day en route to the U.S. or face crippling tariffs.
Mexican negotiators ran to Washington to make a deal. Mr. Trump didn’t get everything he wanted, but he got enough.
By July, the numbers were dropping. By September, they were in manageable territory and falling.
With additional help from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — the countries of most of the children and families that made up the surge — the president effectively outsourced the border problem to Mexico and got the Mexicans to do what Congress wouldn’t.
“It is painfully ironic that Mexico has done more than Congress to stem the tide of illegal immigration to our southern border since May,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy Homeland Security secretary, told The Washington Times. “Mexico is not perfect by any means, but they’re doing more now than any time in your adult lifetime to partner with us actively to drive the numbers down.”
What changed, analysts say, is the incentive structure.
Migrants who had been assured of gaining a foothold in the U.S., with a quick release into communities and a hope that they would show up years later for their immigration cases, now faced actual consequences.
More than 60,000 were pushed back across the border through the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols. Nicknamed the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the MPP requires asylum seekers to stay in Mexico to wait for their hearing dates in U.S. immigration courts.
Other migrants had their claims denied outright under tougher asylum rules enacted by the Homeland Security and Justice departments. Those who do get through this phase are increasingly held in detention, making them more likely to be deported.
Others never even got a chance. They said Mexico’s increased enforcement of its own borders deterred them.
As several officials put it in interviews with The Times, crossing the border without authorization now comes with real consequences, and that means they have been able to end the “catch and release” policy.
“It still happens in certain situations, but it’s not the rule anymore. And once it ends as the rule, you have illegal immigration drop exponentially,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
He said the cartels that control the smuggling trade — and their customers, the migrants — realized the old tricks no longer worked. Once Central American families were no longer caught and released, family, friends and neighbors back home took notice and stayed there.
“The administration outsourced the problem to Mexico. Mexico solved the problem for us,” Mr. Judd said.
Change the incentives
In May, agents and officers nabbed 144,116 migrants at the border, the vast majority of them Central American children and families. More than 95,000 of them — a staggering 66% — were caught and immediately released.
In June, after the Mexico negotiations, that number dropped to fewer than 60,000 catch-and-releases, or 57% of the flow. By September the overall flow was down to near 52,000, and just 17% were caught and released. As of November, officials say, catch-and-release is “virtually” over.
Immigrant-rights advocates acknowledge the better border numbers, but say it’s come at a terrible humanitarian price.
Human Rights First is keeping an online database of reported attacks on migrants returned to Mexico under MPP. As of this week their tally was 636 cases of “rape, torture, kidnapping and other violent assaults.” Some 138 of those cases involved children targeted in kidnapping attempts, the group says.
“Cartel members were in the Nuevo Laredo office of Mexican migration openly abducting asylum seekers just returned by [Customs and Border Protection] from their court hearings at the U.S. port of entry,” the group said in a report.
“It shouldn’t surprise us that the administration got a reduction in migration by virtually revoking the right to seek asylum,” said Adam Isacson, a security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Customs and Border Protection officials dispute the critics’ claims of mass abuse. They say what violence is happening is being done to illegal immigrants who refuse to stay at the Mexican shelters to await their U.S. court hearings, and instead seek out the cartels to try to arrange for another attempt to jump the border. Those cartels often kidnap and hold the migrants for ransom, border officials say.
CBP says Mexico, as part of the deal-making, promised it would protect migrants returned under the MPP.
Officials at Mexico’s embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment about their country’s actions. Neither did the embassies of the three Central American nations.
Congress wasn’t entirely idle during the crisis. The Republican-led Senate approved billions of dollars to help create more dorms for illegal immigrant children in the care of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and under pressure, the Democrat-led House agreed to the bill.
That money helped cut overcrowding at border facilities, from 2,800 Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) as of June 6 to about 100 a day by October. The number of people in border custody dropped from nearly 19,000 on June 6 to fewer than 3,500 at the end of October.
But that was treating only the symptoms, not the disease, administration officials say.
“You’ve got a massive wing of Congress that believes they have an interest in this chaos,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “Like it’s a good thing for them. They have something to run on, it looks bad for the president, that’s their view. And long term, many of them want to look ahead to amnesties for everybody that’s coming here illegally. They believe they’ll benefit from that long-term.”
Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan last month confronted lawmakers over the inaction during a Senate hearing.
“Not a single piece of meaningful legislation has been brought forward to address this crisis,” he chided senators.
The criticism hit a nerve.
Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat, said he has voted for border fencing and more Border Patrol agents and more technology in the past. He said the administration has bungled some of that spending, and can’t even hire enough Border Patrol agents to match the level Congress has provided money for.
“To suggest that the Congress hasn’t been a good partner I think is just unfair and I think untrue,” the senator told Mr. Morgan.
Mr. Morgan tried to respond but Mr. Carper cut him off: “You have had a lot of time to speak already and so let’s let somebody else talk, OK?”
Congress and the courts
Mr. Cuccinelli says members of Congress were stunned by Mr. Trump’s moves on the international stage and particularly the decision to delay foreign aid to Central American countries until they stepped up.
“He certainly has employed tactics that none of his predecessors have utilized,” the acting deputy secretary said. “Despite all the concerns and worry, the reality is they brought results. They brought real partnership … to a degree and a comprehensiveness that has never been seen before.”
He said the international partners also deserve credit.
Serious crime has dropped in El Salvador, where the new president has cut off cell phone service at prisons. Leaders of the MS-13 gang used to operate with impunity from prison with the help of phones.
“He’s doing things that people in his country and ours said couldn’t be done,” Mr. Cuccinelli said, though he added, “I would not be a good member of this president’s administration if I didn’t point out that El Salvador started out safer than Baltimore at the beginning of that [crime rate] drop.”
The administration also has stepped up with new policies, such as tighter asylum rules and a series of proposals aimed at limiting immigrants’ access to public benefits.
The result has been a shift back to more normal illegal immigration, both in numbers and composition. The number of Central American children and families, who shattered records for illegal immigration this spring, has dropped dramatically. They accounted for 70% of the 144,116 nabbed at the border in May, but by October were just 38% of the 45,250 people caught at the border.
Mr. Isacson wondered how much staying power the recovery would have. He pointed to the Obama administration, which faced a Central American family surge in 2014 and 2015.
“Smugglers cut way back on their business and people stopped coming for a few months. Eventually, though, they adapted and the trend started going upward again,” he said. “Conditions aren’t better in places like Central America’s Northern Triangle, and it’s not like smugglers are going to go out of business. I’d expect to see some recovery — but the numbers probably haven’t bottomed out yet.”
U.S. officials say counting on Mexico isn’t a long-term solution and Congress must act.
The president has a few demands: Tighten asylum rules; synchronize treatment of UACs, so juveniles from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras can be returned quickly in the same way that Mexican children are; and undo a 2015 judge’s order that put an effective 20-day cap on how long illegal immigrant families could be held in detention.
That last one is the biggest — Judge Dolly M. Gee’s ruling has been cited as the biggest cause of the migrant family surge.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it takes about 50 days on average to complete an immigration case for someone in detention — far longer than the 20 days Judge Gee has allowed.
Those who are released can take years — and many won’t even show for their hearings, using their release as a chance to disappear into the shadows.
The administration proposed a new plan to Judge Gee that would allow for longer detention, but she rejected it.
Judges also are scrutinizing the other moves the administration has made, including the tougher asylum policies and the MPP.
Mr. Cuccinelli said courts are now the biggest threat to the administration’s success.
“It’s not Mexicans or congressmen, it’s activist judges who seek to enjoin each and every thing we do,” said Mr. Cuccinelli, a former attorney general of Virginia.