Illegal immigration ticked down at the border in January, but officials said Friday the trends are still worrisome, with the number of families trying to sneak into the U.S. still near all-time highs.
They’re increasingly coming in massive groups, which the cartels use to overwhelm Border Patrol agents — then send a shipment of drugs across the border in a nearby location, confident that the agents are occupied feeding or performing medical checks on the illegal immigrants and won’t be able to respond.
“They’re using these large groups to facilitate the crossing of narcotics because they know they’ve tied up a large percentage of our manpower,” one Customs and Border Protection official said, briefing reporters on the latest numbers and tactics.
On any day, about 150 Border Patrol agents are pulled out of the field and have to do “hospital watch,” staying with hundreds of illegal immigrants who were so sick when they arrived that they needed immediate medical attention, officials said.
The latest large group was nabbed near Ajo, Arizona, on Thursday.
The 320 people came to a part of the U.S.-Mexico border where there is no fence, but rather a vehicle barrier to prevent cars and trucks from driving across.
The group easily climbed the barrier, then demanded the attention of Border Patrol agents.
“You’re pulling from a security mission in order to be able to perform a humanitarian mission,” the border official said.
Through the first four months of fiscal year 19, Homeland Security has seen 60 large groups — defined as at least 100 migrants. In 2018, the number was just 13. And in 2017 it was just one.
The groups amount to mini-caravans, security experts say, and are being bussed to remote areas where there they can overwhelm the Border Patrol.
“The amount of family units we’re seeing now is flooding the system,” an official said.
Thursday’s group of 320 came in February, too late for the January statistics which officials released.
Those stats showed the Border Patrol caught 47,893 illegal immigrants trying to jump the border, and CBP officers encountered another 10,314 illegal immigrants who showed up at official border crossings and entered without permission.
Of those nabbed at the border, 24,116 were came as family units, and 5,124 were unaccompanied children.
The total number and the number of family members are both down a bit from December — but officials said they saw a surge in the final weeks of January, suggesting that the trend line is picking up again.
The new numbers come as Congress is debating President Trump’s request for border wall money.
Mr. Trump says a wall will help deter illegal immigration, reducing crime and drug loads being snuck into the U.S.
Congressional Democrats, though, say the level of illegal immigration is much lower than it was during the Clinton and Bush years, so there’s no reason to pay for additional border fencing.
The CBP officials said the overall numbers are down, but the demographics have changed in worrying ways. In the past, the flow was almost entirely single adults — usually men — from Mexico.
Now it’s mostly families and unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, who under U.S. policy are tougher to quickly deport. And they put a much bigger strain on the Border Patrol, which officials said is not set up to provide care for such massive numbers of sick or hungry people.