Border arrests dropped for the eighth straight month in January as the Trump administration’s new policies continue to discourage new people from coming, according to Homeland Security officials — though they’re warning numbers are likely to go up as spring approaches.
The Border Patrol’s 29,200 apprehensions along the southwestern border is the at its lowest in nearly two years, and the number of children and families — the toughest cases — is at its lowest since 2017.
Another 7,479 migrants were encountered at ports of entry, showing up without permission to enter.
Both the border and port numbers are not only lower than December, but are massive improvements over the peak of the migrant surge last year, when more than 140,000 migrants were arrested or encountered.
“Eight months ago your chance of being allowed into the United States was pretty high,” said acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan. “That has changed. Catch and release is all but done. You will not be allowed in.”
Even with the strong numbers, Mr. Morgan warned the smuggling cartels that control the flow of people “are changing their tactics” and looking for new customers.
“This is a moneymaking business, this is all about money and power. They will do anything they can and smuggle anything and anybody they can to continue to make money,” he said. “Now they’re starting to appeal to other vulnerable groups.”
That means less of a focus on the Central Americans who made up last year’s surge, and a return to the Mexicans who had been the crux of the problem for years before that. And the cartels are increasingly looking beyond North America, to places like Brazil.
Mr. Morgan said the seasonal trends also predict a rise in illegal border activity this spring.
But he said Homeland Security is better positioned to deal with another rise, thanks to the new policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocol — commonly called the “Return to Mexico” policy — and deals with Mexico and Central American countries to do more to stop people from reaching the U.S. border.
Mr. Morgan just finished meetings with regional leaders to solidify the coordination, and said those countries want to keep their people home, viewing them as critical to future development and prosperity.
“That was palpable. When I interacted with them I could tell they were committed to doing everything they could to do just that,” he said.
Doctors Without Borders issued a report Tuesday saying the new Trump policies that stemmed last year’s surge have had troubling consequences. They said many of those coming north faced traumatic violence of the kind normally seen in war zones.
Yet when they reach the U.S. border, they’re facing more scrutiny in their asylum claims.
Doctors Without Borders was particularly critical of the Return to Mexico policy, saying cartels are preying on those sent back. The group said 75% of patients it treated from the MPP program in October were kidnapped after they were sent back.
Mr. Morgan said the cartels, not the U.S., are to blame for those acts. But he also disputed some of the reporting, saying those migrants sent back to Mexico who go to the government-run shelters are getting protection and assistance.
One trend that did trouble him was drug seizures, which have been rising. Seizures of methamphetamine are up 51% so far this fiscal year.
Mr. Morgan said that’s playing out across the country, with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reporting that meth has now surpassed marijuana as the drug most commonly encountered by authorities in that state.
“I am hoping I’m painting the picture of when we talk about the crisis, when we talk about the threat along the southwestern border, it is much more than just illegal immigration,” he said.